Kress, Nancy. Beggars and Choosers.

NY: Tor, 1994.

Nancy Kress writes science fiction of the best sort, in which the story not only focuses on science but on the ethical and moral issues that scientific change forces us to confront. (Notice I don’t say “progress” because so many people don’t consider change and progress to be equivalent.) Beggars in Spain (1993), to which the present volume is a direct sequel, dealt with human genetic manipulation and modification, the culmination of which was the creation of people who never have to sleep — which amounted to a new human sub-species because it was inheritable.

The Sleepless also turned out to be extremely healthy and extremely long-lived. And very, very intelligent, far more so even than the IQ-mods that wealthy families could buy for their offspring-to-be. The Sleepless, increasingly (and inevitably) hated and feared by the rest of society, retreated into Sanctuary, at first in New York State and then in an orbital habitat. And their leaders, isolated for decades, fell into hubris and tried to coerce the U.S. government with terrorist blackmail. Meanwhile, though, they also created another generation of their own offspring who were as far in advance of themselves as they were of the Sleepers — and these new “Supers” had their own ideas about how the country ought to be run when it came to relations between the two halves of society, and knocked the pins out from under the rulers of Sanctuary. Now it’s a few years later and America is a very different place. The “donkeys” — the genetically modified and IQ-enhanced who actually do the work and run the country — make up a very small segment of the population. The “livers,” who make up the majority and who sell their votes to those donkeys who supply them with the best bread and circuses, are determinedly idle and ignorant. And on a man-made island in the Gulf of Mexico, the Supers, all twenty-seven of them, are creating the tools for a worldwide revolution.

The principal ethical-moral issue this time is “Who should control technology?” The scientists, who actually understand what science does? The “people,” who don’t understand any of it but who make up the democratic majority? Or the bureaucrat-run government, which is somewhere in the middle? Kress makes the distinctions between these segments of the population a good deal more extreme than in our present world as a narrative device, but the issue is a fair one. In her story, however, things are brought to a head by the activities of a redneck-led underground “patriot” movement that wants to kill off all the abominations and take over the country themselves via revolution — as God and Gen. Francis Marion apparently want them to. Aided by traitors in the government, they’ve released a viral form of nanotech that destroys the technology that keep things running — food machines and transportation and communications and computers. The Supers know about it and are bending things to suit their own ends — a not terribly moral position when the innocent are being killed in the process. There are no easy answers. But the Supers’ solution to a world divided between haves and have-nots, only a week or two away from starvation, is a breath-taker. This is yet another excellent novel from a very talented author.

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