Kress, Nancy. Beggars in Spain.

NY: Morrow, 1993.

Kress is one of the best science fiction novelists around and has been for a couple of decades. So, even though she’s won several serious awards, it’s a puzzle why she’s not better known. Perhaps it’s because she writes not space opera and shoot-‘em-ups, or interminable fantasy series, but novels of the mind that deal with actual science. Her books assume the reader will make the effort to think about what she’s saying. And perhaps that says something depressing about the SF market these days.

The main themes of this one are community and social distance and xenophobia and fear of the Other. The framework is provided by genetic modification, the real-world possibility of which grows ever closer. It’s only a few years in the future and prescriptive DNA-manipulation has reached the point where prospective parents can special-order whatever features they like for their baby, in addition to elimination of inherited diseases and conditions. Not just height and eye color and beauty but predisposition to musical talent and perhaps increased intelligence. That’s if you have the money, of course. Billionaire Roger Camden certainly has the money and he wants his daughter to benefit from the latest breakthrough: A gene-mod that removes the need for sleep. Think what we might be able to accomplish if we didn’t have to “waste” a third of our lives! Because, as Kress’s characters have discovered, sleep is just a survival strategy with no physical necessity behind it. Leisha Camden is one of the first of a new type of human — the Sleepless. And it isn’t long before another discovery is made, that a byproduct of the non-sleeping modification is nearly complete tissue regeneration, which means a greatly extended lifetime and virtually no aging. Of course, these modifications are available only to a very, very few. (And almost entirely in the United States, apparently.) And the rest of our society sees the Sleepless as alien, and therefore dangerous. And the fear and the hating begin.

That’s only the opening segment of Kress’s episodic story, which takes place at intervals over the following eighty-plus years. Leisha has become a lawyer and works hard to protect the other Sleepless as they mature from the society they can’t escape. Except that some of them do try to escape, by setting up Sanctuary, first in New York State, then in an orbital habitat. And the majority of Sleepless react first by withdrawing into their own small world and then by erecting defenses against the Sleepers — and then by becoming really no different than the xenophobes on the outside. Absolute loyalty to the community of Sleepless becomes their overriding social value. But in their continued development of genetic manipulation they create children who are superior even to themselves, the Super Sleepless, who will, of course, form their own community with its own loyalties.

The author does a marvelous job of investigating all these interactions, playing off Leisha’s refusal to join the community of Sanctuary — and thus cutting herself off from everyone like her — against the increasingly pathological fear and need for control of Sanctuary’s leaders, and similarly comparing the latter group to the Supers. “For every fish, there’s a bigger fish.” Her characterizations are extremely well done and nuanced and she makes the speculative science not only believable but understandable. Nor is genetics the only theme here. Kress also has a good deal to say about the economics of a have/have-not society and what’s owed by the privileged who live in such a world. She explores the philosophy of rights vs. duties, and what “created equal” might come to mean in the future. And while all of this is also very carefully worked out, she knows there are no easy answers, no black-and-white. It’s no surprise that this one won awards in both its original short story form and after she expanded it into a novel. Best of all, this is only the first volume of what became a trilogy, so there’s plenty more to come.


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