Beggars and Choosers, Nancy Kress (1994)
Review by Megan AM
Techno skepticism in a dystopian world controlled by a few genetically-modified humans, the second of the Beggars trilogy brings to mind Philip José Farmer’s ‘Riders of the Purple Wage’ (Dangerous Visions, 1967) where a society lives in trashy decadence on government-provided salaries upon the advent of fully-automated manufacturing and agricultural industries. Both stories share a crude, unenlightened vision of “The Welfare State”, but Kress breaks from Farmer’s negative characterizations of the lower classes by embedding her aloof, self-centered protagonists into the fold of thoughtful, questioning citizens who are confounded by regular breakdowns in technology and a growing sense of isolation from outside affairs.
And finally! After the first volume of bickering between the moderate Sleepless Leisha and her reactionary Sleepless foes, we finally get to see the social decay that Beggars in Spain often fuzzed about.
But first, let’s just come out and say it: The titles for these books are awful. “Beggars” looked ugly enough in the first volume, not to mention the weak reference fails at its geocultural point. (Why Spain?) And neither “beggars” nor “choosers” are even alluded to in the second installment because the analogy fits so poorly. The addition of the decadent “Livers” and public servant “donkeys” sound even worse… these aren’t realistic terms, they are derogatory slurs that not even Farmer’s absurdist society would willingly adopt for themselves. Besides that, these horrific social labels distract from the actual motif of this entire set up:
“Who should control radical technological advances and what impact will they have on society?”
More techno-fear than Red Scare, though the surface might suggest otherwise, it is a heavy-handed debate that is surprisingly engaging… even if you aren’t a political science major who grew up eating on the Lone Star Card and has to tie down her left knee to give others the floor. (Ahem, me).
Polemics aside, the most significant feature of the Beggars trilogy is Kress’s habit of writing women in non-gendered, unfeminized ways. Because of genetic enhancements, these women are viewed by society as the height of sexual attractiveness, yet their internal workings and external behaviors diverge from the standard genre characterization of women by conveying neutrality, logic, distance – what some people might call “cold”. They are not driven by romance, family attachments (although sometimes driven by parental trauma, which is, thankfully, only observed in the narrative, and not stated, so there is plenty to analyze), ambition, or passion. They just do. Much like how we often observe even the most “charismatic” of male leads. I find this divergence refreshing and subversive.
More specifically, Kress’s approach to writing rich, white women is interesting. We get plenty of rich, white women in fiction, from all kinds of authors, but not often with such familiar ambiguity. Flawed, almost to the point of contempt, yet intimate, as if manifesting from authorial-reflection. It’s disconcerting at first, especially because most of these rich, white characters are misleadingly positioned as protagonists. Some readers might interpret these characters as the established heroes of the narrative, and therefore the voices of reason, but Leisha’s moderate naiveté, Diana’s reactionary cynicism, and Drew’s (a male) self-centered obsessions will keep alert readers on their toes, especially as the lower classes they alternately condemn and (think they) defend rarely conform to their haughty worldviews. Things are just so simple for these elite characters, and within a text that highlights so many confused and complex perspectives, that’s the first clue that these lead characters are not heroes.
Genre readers have been trained on hero fiction for so long, some readers might fall into that pattern and misinterpret this tale. Kress is not the type of author to handhold readers away from that pattern, in fact, I think she relies on it to keep readers engaged (read: defensive or smug, depending on your POV). In Beggars in Spain, everyone is morally gray, but it might take the entire context of the book, with all of its table-tennis arguing, to see that. In Beggars and Choosers, the same applies, but this time, with the dive into “Liver” society, we see more of a distinct narrative distrust of all genetically modified people, while the “lazy” and “ignorant” “Livers”, the lower-class consumers of “Bread & Circuses”, reveal a more layered and nuanced existence.
But it’s not fair to dissect Kress’s characterization of the rich and elite without addressing the problematic portrayals of non-white characters. Each book contains at least one glaring instance of ethnic insensitivity that seems both unnecessary and offensive. In Beggars in Spain, I initially waved off the portrayal of an enemy Muslim character as an unfortunate consequence of a ‘90s unsophisticated attempt at diversifying a novella that, when following that character’s arc into the expanded novel, turned ugly. A sympathetic author would apologize upon being made aware of the misstep, but I stumbled upon an old interview in which Kress basically shrugged off the criticism as PC-oversensitivity. Beggars and Choosers continues the attitude during a very, very small scene, of which I am not going to describe because it relies on such a deeply embedded social stereotype, but hints at the same lack of sensitivity. Hopefully her perceptions have changed since then.
And there are other flaws. The “sleepless” element has long since run out of steam, to be replaced by a more general form of super-person. The prologue is unnecessary, and full of over-heightened dialogue. The final fifty pages unravel with a pointless cliffhanger to set up for the next novel. Some plot points seem too convenient, or unnecessary and over-complicated. Perhaps Kress is strongest in novella form.
But that said, I do appreciate Kress for creating books that I can think about, argue with, and that remain in the forefront of my mind long after I have read them. Like its predecessor, Beggars in Spain, I went into Beggars and Choosers expecting to be bored, but rediscovered the pleasure of what Kress does well: portraying unsympathetic characters in misleading and intimate ways, designing surprising, effective twists, and establishing a sense of narrative distrust by toying with the reader’s own sensibilities. Whenever I enter one of her novels, two things go through my mind: one, can she pull this off? Two, is she trying to piss me off? And it’s an everlasting game of ping-pong after that.
Kress is a difficult SF author to categorize because, while she’s not literary in any sense beyond a more complete form of characterization, she writes within mainstream science fiction conventions, but outside of formula constraints, all while embracing, challenging, and twisting the reader’s reactions. And, of course, I’ll never forgive her for introducing me to the idea of being Sleepless, as I damn her characters nightly for their sleepless virtues when I want to stay up and do anything other than sleep.
This review originally appeared on From couch to moon.