Book review: Beggars in Spain (Nancy Kress 1993)

There are no spoilers in this review beyond what you’d find in the first few chapters or the cover blurb.

Rating: 4/5

“Beggars in Spain” is a science fiction novel written in 1993; it was nominated for the top two awards in the field, the Hugo and the Nebula, though it didn’t win either. (“Red Mars” by Kim Stanley Robinson won both; it is one of the most detailed hard sf books I’ve read.) “Beggars in Spain” is one of those sf books that can be summarized by a what-if– what-if some people didn’t have to sleep at all? How would society react? What kinds of advantages would they have? How would it affect the personality of such a person?

The novel opens with a wealthy man wishing to procure advantageous genetic alterations for his to-be-conceived child in 2008. Though it is still rare, he wants his child to be sleepless. The children who have the trait have proven to be much smarter and always cheerful. Another child is conceived accidentally who is not sleepless (as a small nitpick, the science in this bit seemed fishy, but I am not familiar with what was known in 1993). Leisha is the sleepless daughter, Alice is the sleeper daughter.

Leisha is of course beautiful and brilliant. Much of the novel rotates around how she relates to sleeper people. The characters in the book didn’t always work for me; Leisha is always cheerful as a sleeper, but this is hard to relate to, and hard to imagine how it would even work. Also there is an injection of almost libertarian politics that I wasn’t sure what I thought of. The politics aren’t preachy and are presented as Leisha’s world-view rather than the author’s. I liked the first half of the novel immensely. I didn’t dislike the second half, but I found it less exciting and engaging. One consistently strong point of this book was the writing: I sometimes have to labor through harder science fiction books, which must belabor the description of complicated mechanical things. This book just flew for me, while still attacking the central question of science fiction: what would happen to people if? So if you are a fan of hard sf and only hard sf, it probably isn’t for you.

“Beggars in Spain” was also one of the most female-dominated sf books I’ve read. Most of the principal characters are female. The book is feminist without caring about it or focusing on it; these characters could just as easily be male but they simply aren’t. It’s feminist not in the sense of women’s rights, but simply having women as protagonists and examining their relationships. I’ve read umpteen scifi books with barely a woman on the pages, so this was a welcome change of pace. Nancy Kress is also one of the few premier female names in science fiction, so it also seemed appropriate.

Overall, I found “Beggars in Spain” a very worthy read. It raised a lot of thoughtful questions that even a week after finishing the book, I find myself thinking about. It never came together in a “wow” moment, as a few sf books do for me, but it was pleasant and easy to read, which is not always the rule in sf. This was the first work I’ve read by Nancy Kress, and based on this book, I want to read more from her.

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