Calico Reaction (calico_reaction) wrote,
Calico Reaction

Kress, Nancy: Beggars in Spain

Beggars in Spain (1993)
Written by: Nancy Kress
Genre: Science Fiction
Pages: 400 (Trade Paperback)

Why I Read It: I've wanted to read this puppy even since I knew it existed. In part, the cover was just so pretty! But it didn't hurt that the premise was utterly fascinating, so I was pleased with the Alphabet Soup Book Clubbers selected it for our September read.

The premise: ganked from In a world where the slightest edge can mean the difference between success and failure, Leisha Camden is beautiful, extraordinarily intelligent ... and one of an ever-growing number of human beings who have been genetically modified to never require sleep.

Once considered interesting anomalies, now Leisha and the other "Sleepless" are outcasts -- victims of blind hatred, political repression, and shocking mob violence meant to drive them from human society ... and, ultimately, from Earth itself.

But Leisha Camden has chosen to remain behind in a world that envies and fears her "gift" -- a world marked for destruction in a devastating conspiracy of freedom ... and revenge.

Spoilers, yay or nay?: Yay. Sorry, but it's a book club pick, and book club picks mean spoilers. If you haven't read the book yet and care about not getting spoiled, just skip to "My Rating" and you'll be fine. Everyone else, onward!

This is the kind of book that I really, really wish I'd read between 2006 and 2008, when I was working on my SF novel/thesis project at Seton Hill's Writing Popular Fiction Program, because this book has, at the crux of its plot, the same thing mine did: two factions at war with each other over genetic alteration of humanity. It's not an uncommon trope by any means, but I would've been far more open and excited to read this book (I may have even loved it), had I read it when I was working on my own novel, because seeing what an established, award-winning author had already done would've definitely helped shape my own process.

But I didn't read it then, even though I bought the sucker while I was in grad school. And it's a shame, because I found myself rather impatient with the book.

No, I didn't love it.

It's an odd relationship I have with Nancy Kress. Her books on writing are utterly fantastic and full of useful, excellent information for writers. The short fiction I've read has been good to great. However, this is the second novel of hers I've attempted. I say attempted because the first novel of hers I tried to read I didn't finish (Probablity Moon), and I'm sorry I don't have a review to shoot your way, but that was a DNF long before I decided I'd let myself have DNFs. :)

Beggars in Spain I finished, of course, but there were times when I was fully aware that I really wasn't enjoying the ride and that I didn't care about the characters. Ironically enough, one of the things that most turned me off from this book was the writing style. Something about it kept me at a distance, and the problem may be that with rare exception, I like a tight, third-person POV, and don't care for getting POVs that I only see once or twice. But there was a certain distance to the various POVs as well, even for characters, like Leisha, who had most of the narrative. We really never got into people's heads, which leads me to the next thing that turned me off:

We never got into people's heads, but damn if we didn't get into their politics. And normally, this would be fine, only the conversation about the poor and what society's responsibility is or isn't to the poor came at a bad time. Nationally-speaking, because in the U.S., we're inundated by news of the Republican-Primary debates, and personally speaking, because RIGHT before reading this book, I ended up having a huge debate about the poor with a person who used to be a very best friend, and I was still feeling tender over the fact that her change in politics has radically changed the person I used to know.

So reading this book, for me, was not fun. At all. It wasn't really even enlightening, because it was the same old argument projected into our far future with no real answers but so much focus on philosophy that despite what other reviewers have said, I don't believe for a moment that Kress isn't preaching. The problem is Kress is trying to present both sides of the story, but she never really provides a hard and fast answer. Though I will concede: at the end, I couldn't help but wonder if the answer was that we have to help others less fortunate because we never know if that less fortunate person will contribute to the future in some important, meaningful way, whether it's that unfortunate person, or their child, or grandchild. I wondered if the answer wasn't this: that we're not trying to solve the now, but the future.

You might say, "But Calico, THERE'S your answer, silly!" And you may be right, but it's still rather infuriating that I had to read 400 pages to get that answer, because we literally DO NOT get that insight until the last two pages. And for that one, particular answer, that's far too much build-up.

Of course, the book is about more than just society's responsibility to the poor. It's about what it means to be human, and how genetic differences create strife, which creates fear, which creates hate, and leads to war. This isn't a new message either, and while I'm not saying that every book I read has to have a new or original message in it, I wish this one had been presented in a more engaging fashion. Part of the problem was the constant philosophizing, and the other problem was I just never connected to Leisha. With rare exception, she wasn't a woman of action. She just sat back on her personal morals and argued with people until she was blue in the face in an attempt to make them see her side. What action we did see her take was often (not always) "off-screen," and she never emotionally connected to anyone. Alice hit the nail on the head, when she told Leisha that the moment she felt most connected to her was the moment she felt Leisha needed her help, and that's interesting, because over the course of the book, I wondered if part of the problem with the Sleepless was that they were somehow emotionally stunted, and therefore, how could any emotional reader really connect? Jennifer was certainly stunted emotionally, but her cold, relentless logic made sense in a certain way. Leisha, however, despite all of her ideals, never seemed to have a real goal, and what goals she had were so vague they might as well have been intangible.

Of course, maybe I was just meant to be grumpy about this thing: after all, I didn't even start READING the book before I had a nitpick: the "book one" page with the Abraham Lincoln quite also dates when the story itself is taking place, and that date is 2008, three years ago. Dating science fiction is always dangerous because eventually, the future is going to catch up with your book, and more than likely, that future doesn't match the scientific capabilities of the book.

After all, we aren't genetically able to create the Sleepless now, are we?

But I also found that I had trouble really buying the concept of the Sleepless. Not the idea that they'd get more done and be more accomplished and potentially smarter, but this on page 11:

Also, doctors have known for sixty years that antidepressants, which lift the mood of depressed patients, also suppress REM sleep entirely. What they have proved in the past ten years is that the reverse is equally true: suppress REM sleep and people don't get depressed. The nonsleep kids are cheerful, outgoing . . . joyous. There's no other word for it.

Granted, I know this book was published in 1993, and I know that Kress was working on this sucker for many, many, MANY years before that. And maybe at the time she did her research, this was somehow reasonable. But it doesn't ring true for me, not now. Obviously, I'm not basing my feelings on scientific fact, but I have been on antidepressants at one time in my life, and my REM sleep wasn't suppressed. I also won't say my antidepressants were a magic pill that just made me joyous either, but then again, here Kress is stating the reverse: if you suppress REM sleep, then such people don't get depressed.

Again, this is non-scientific me talking, but that just sound right to me. People who don't sleep at all tend to be grumpier and crappier and angrier than those who do. And whether Kress intended it or not, one can say her genetic tinkering of the Sleepless allows for this not to happen. But ultimately, I found Kress is asking her reader to accept a lot about the Sleepless. They aren't just Sleepless, they're super-smart. More productive. Okay, fine. But happier? Aging so slowly that they might as well be immortal? The more we learned about the Sleepless, the less I believed.

Now don't get me wrong: if there's scientific evidence to support Kress's conjectures in this book about what not sleeping will really do for a person, I'm genuinely all ears. Just because I haven't heard of the research doesn't mean it's not out there, and I'd be foolish to state it's all false without doing my homework. But as it stands now, I'm not aware of such research, so it doesn't ring true, and therefore I have a harder and harder time suspending my disbelief.

Then there was the reaction to the Sleepless by their own parents. When it first started, I got it: parents weren't adequately prepared to raise a Sleepless and therefore resented it. But once this pattern was established, why did people keep having Sleepless children, only to abuse them later? One can talk a good game about the very human trait of thinking "Oh, it won't be me," and being wrong, but then we get into the notion of kidnapping: why wouldn't these parents who hate their own children not WANT the children gone? Why go to such an extent as kidnapping? Shouldn't these people be glad to have the kids out of their hair?

The human mind is a complex subject, and no doubt, there's an argument for control-freaks not wanting to let go of what's theirs, whether they like it or not. But in a narrative context, it just kept pushing me out of my suspension of disbelief.

And during the time when it was believed there was the ability to make a Sleeper a Sleepless but the Sleepless were trying to suppress that research to keep it from getting it out in the open? Again, I started to wonder: shouldn't the Sleepless want to create more Sleepless? My own answer to that question is that they'd probably become so insular by that point that unless the Sleepless was born that way, they didn't want to expand their ranks to those who used to hate them. And this was never mentioned, but there would also be over-population to consider too. If everyone was Sleepless and having children, the world would get really full, really quickly.

But how did people keep having Sleepless children? When we learn about Stella, I got the impression her parents weren't very healthy, and yet, didn't you have to have to be wealthy in order to afford a Sleepless?

There were other scientific conjectures that Kress made way back when that are rather laughable now, especially given that she thought it would STILL be an issue in 2051 (page 132):

You have to understand, Doctor, that the courts are still struggling with the limitations of electronic documents as evidence. They've been struggling with it longer than I've been alive. At first computer-generated documents were treated as hearsay because they weren't originals. Then they were barred because there were just too many people who could break systems security. Now since Sabino v. Lansing they're treated as a separate, inherently weaker category of evidence.

Someone who's actually studied law can discuss how electronic documents were originally treated when they first came on the scene, but I find it utterly, totally laughable--and unbelievable--that Kress would think that this would STILL be an issue in 2051. I mean, SERIOUSLY? Granted, I doubt anyone would've really predicted the way technology changed and boomed over the past 30 years, but even without that knowledge, to think that the courts wouldn't come up with something? That's laughable. It almost makes me think that perhaps Kress thought that email and the internet was a passing fad, you know? Why else treat the electronic use of documents so harshly? Then again, maybe at the time she wrote this book, the courts really were having trouble with it, and maybe this was a joke on Kress's part: that they'd never figure out what to do with them?

Who knows. But it knocked me out of the story. Another reason to not date your work.

Also I had a little laugh at the start of Chapter 22 with the discussion of the US debt. I really wonder how Kress's figures compare to today's figures. The tax discussion was beyond reflective of the debt crisis the US is facing today, and still interesting, despite my feeling inundated with the discussion. It always entertains me to see how writers have predicted this kind of problem for the US economy, yet the people who work in politics for a living couldn't (as a general whole).

Another scientific nitpick I had was the description of those who lived in the Sanctuary Orbital. The Supers were described as having enlarged heads, but was that due to the size of their brains or due to the gravity? Now that I'm thinking of it, I think Kress used some kind of anti-grav thing that allowed there to be gravity on the orbital (with the exception of some areas), but I wished more had been explored about the nature of how human bodies change when they're in a space station of sorts, gravity or not.

One of the stronger portions of the book, though, was the development of Leisha's and Alice's relationship, which I ended up really enjoying. I really warmed up to Alice during the kidnapping of Stella, when Alice states that of course she's up to it, because she's "Roger Camden's daughter " (page 89). That showed succinctly the strength behind these characters, and I loved that.

There were also times in Book Four: Beggars, that I was reminded of Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (it's funny: for a book I didn't care for, I come back to it a lot). The Sanctuary Orbital and its society and its desire to be independent of the US really resonated with Heinlein's book, but then again, that just speaks to the universalness of the concept, and how ingrained the notion is to American society.

I also delighted in the fact that Sleepless couldn't keep producing Sleepless, that nature was finding a way to reverse the genetic alterations and bring the human form back to its original design. It raised the question, for me, about whether or not genetic alterations can truly be passed down. It's one thing when there's a mutation or evolution, but man-made tinkering? Then again, how does "nature" know the difference? Whatever the case, this was a delightful discovery, despite what it lead to in Sanctuary.

I liked, too, how it was discovered that it wasn't sleep that was necessary, but rather dreaming. I mentioned earlier that so many of the Sleepless were emotionless, rather inflexible, fixed peoples, and this notion that dreaming is utterly necessary for the human intellect and emotional health was great. Maybe I liked it so well because I didn't buy the whole REM-less people being more joyous bit at the beginning, but this made sense to me.

My Rating: It's a Gamble

I hate to give it a rating like this, but I think the book's one of those that you'll either like or not, you know? I think I would've loved it had I read it a few years ago, but now, and due to the particular timing, it grated on my nerves, despite the fact that I was utterly in love with the premise. If Kress wasn't preaching, then she spent far too much time philosophizing back and forth over issues I think she was more concerned figuring out for herself, and not wholly and necessarily for the story to work, because said philosophizing ended up bogging down much of the book for me, and I never did warm to to any of the characters all that much, except for maybe Alice, who didn't have a terribly huge role in the book anyway, so that probably doesn't count. I wish the characters had had something more to do than trying to prove their own personal political/philosophical points of view all the time, because some of the issues about what it really means to be human were there and fascinating, but I felt they were smothered by philosophy and politics. Again, I wish I'd liked this more, but frankly, I was just happy when the book was finally over.

Cover Commentary: I've always loved this cover. It's just so pretty and colorful! Definitely an eye-catcher, and there's enough imagery to suggest the book's SF-ness without resorting to the stereotypical images that usually grace the genre's covers.

More Reviews: Check out the reviews book club participants have posted! If you reviewed this book but are not featured here, please comment below with a link to your review and I'll add it below.

A Bookseller Blog: Review Here
bardiphouka: Review Here
burgandyice: Review Here
celestialgldfsh: Review Here
intoyourlungs: Review Here
starmetal_oak: Review Here
Tethyan Books: Review Here
temporaryworlds: Review Here

Book Club Poll: Quick reminders: first off, if you're not officially participating in the book club, please do not feel obligated to answer the poll. Second, there's a lot of book club participants who are NOT on LJ and I want to make sure they're able to respond appropriately since I'm tracking for points. Because I'm evil like that. So if you're a book clubber, whether you read the book or not, please click the link below!

Click here to take the Beggars in Spain poll!

If you started the book but couldn't finish it, please comment and talk about the reasons why. What turned you off from the book? How far did you go before throwing in the towel?

And as you already know, the October Book Club selection is Melissa Marr's Graveminder. Some of you may have started it already, but if need additional details on the title, just click here.
Sign up for the 2011 Alphabet Soup Challenge!
Click here
Tags: blog: book club, blog: polls, blog: reviews, fiction: science fiction, nancy kress, ratings: it's a gamble

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