Beggars and Choosers, Nancy Kress

beggars_choosersBeggars 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.


Beggars in Spain, Nancy Kress

beggarsBeggars in Spain, Nancy Kress (1993)
Review by Megan AM

It’s an endless battle between me and sleep. There is always something better to do.

Nancy Kress must share that sentiment, because her Hugo award-winning novella, ‘Beggars in Spain’, and her subsequent novel of the same name, is an exploration of society in which parents can choose to endow their children with more time and productivity through genetic modification to never need sleep.

Before she was born, Leisha Camden’s life was already determined for her. Her wealthy parents purchased genetic modifications to make her beautiful, intelligent, and to never require sleep, while her unexpected twin sister received none of these traits. Being Sleepless provides Leisha with more time to devote to studies and contribute to society, but it also causes resentment and distrust among the Sleeper majority, and tensions between the two communities boil over into violence, segregation, and systematic oppression. Leisha is one of the few Sleepless who chooses to remain living among the Sleepers, and works tirelessly to improve relations. But when an influential Sleepless is murdered in jail, the Sleepless make plans to leave Earth, and ostracize Leisha from their community. Defeated, Leisha finds herself alone among Sleepers, and a stranger within her own family.

Oh, and one other thing. Nobody goes to Spain. This is not a cultural fiction novel that will have your mouth watering for tapas. I was kind of disappointed about that.

Despite the premise’s reliance on genetic science, Beggars in Spain is best classified as sociological SF, or even political SF, where the sociopolitical and socioeconomic ramifications of transhumanism are explored. Less personal than most sociological SF like Le Guin or Butler, Kress keeps her characters at arms-length – they’re fully-fleshed, yet unemotional, but that fits with Kress’ world of the mid- to late-21st century in the United States. The science is still there, with the first chapters preoccupied with realistic-sounding explanations about raphe nuclei and neurotransmitters, but it sounds legit, and is quickly dumped for the actual meat of the story. Kress develops an evolving, pulsing society, driven by pseudo-economic self-help messages, divisive intolerance, a decadent lower class, and a judgmental upper class. This is what true speculative fiction should be: a thought experiment based upon a change, and a speculation of the impact of that change from all angles of society, as demonstrated through the characters’ varying perspectives. Kress does this very, very well.

Just as fascinating as the Sleeplessness, an undercurrent of economic philosophy drives the plot, where Yagaism, a pop-economic theory that sounds more appropriate for a self-help book, rather than a peer-reviewed journal, molds the global economy into a meritocracy based on individual determinism. That sounds exactly like our current economic system, sure, yet in Yagaism, the value of work ethic outweighs the value of the dollar. The brain is the means of production, and leisure is the enemy.

Yagaism sounds a bit like Rousseau’s social contract, subverted by Ayn Rand-ian economic egoism:

… a man’s worth to society and to himself doesn’t rest on what he thinks other people should do or be or feel, but on himself. On what he can actually do, and do well. People trade what they do well, and everyone benefits. The basic tool of civilization is the contract. Contracts are voluntary and mutually beneficial. As opposed to coercion, which is wrong. (p. 29)

It’s a blend of American ambition with a mystic belief that all people will prosper if the best get better (and richer). Like a psychic form of Reagan’s trickledown economics. (And we all know how that worked out.)

So, what the hell does this have to do with the beggars in Spain? The Sleepless call the Sleepers “Beggars,” a derogatory name inspired by their murdered friend, whose analogy about going to Spain and giving a dollar to one beggar versus giving a dollar to one hundred beggars becomes the Sleepless’ mantra to help only themselves, because the futility of helping one beggar neglects hundreds of other beggars, and helping all of the beggars is too overwhelming, and drags down society. But the philosophy cannibalizes itself when the Sanctuary community quickly euthanizes any person with questionable medical problems, and aborts any fetuses that indicate Sleeper brain patterns, all because “no one has a right to make claims on the strong and productive because he is weak and useless. To set a higher value on weakness than on ability is morally obscene” (p. 364). With those beliefs, paranoia infects the dwindling Sleepless community.

Yagaism, beggarism… it all sounds like fuzzy logic, but Kress explores each tangle through her diverse and complex characters. The economic arguments are too complex to be a straightforward capitalism vs. communism caricature. Even Kress’s characters’ opinions change throughout their lives, which makes it difficult identify Kress’s own views within the knotted philosophical turmoil of Leisha and her friends. Socialist sensibilities might bristle at Leisha’s Yagaist messages, which often sound like an assortment of Rand Paul election ads, but Leisha evolves, as does Yagaism.

But it’s not all philosophical pontificating! The story itself is interesting and well-plotted, with a great assortment of sterile, yet intriguing, characters. The first novella about Leisha’s childhood blows away the following chapters, but it’s still a worthwhile read. I hear the later books drag, but Kress’ final chapter sets up the sequel, Beggars and Choosers (1994), in a tantalizing way.

As much as I desire extra hours in a day, I think I would miss the pleasure of sleep. Even the Sleepless characters in Beggars in Spain discover the importance of rest and dreaming for their mental health.

This review originally appeared on From couch to moon.

Beggars in Spain, Nancy Kress

beggarsBeggars in Spain, Nancy Kress (1991)
Review by Shannon Turlington

“A man’s worth to society and to himself doesn’t rest on what he thinks other people should do or be or feel, but on himself. On what he can actually do, and do well. People trade what they do well, and everyone benefits. The basic tool of civilization is the contract. Contracts are voluntary and mutually beneficial. As opposed to coercion, which is wrong.”

This review has spoilers and political content. You have been warned.

In the near future, Leisha is one of the first generation of children genetically engineered not to need sleep, and finds herself hated and feared because of the advantages that gives her.

I first read this novel long ago, and I just reread the novella it was based on to refresh my memory, so this review will focus on the novella, which is the opening section of the longer novel. I have seen this book on many libertarian book lists, but it is my opinion that it considers but ultimately refutes libertarian ideals, at least those ideals that we often associate with Ayn Rand.

Like most of the Sleepers, Leisha subscribes to a philosophy popularized by Kenzo Yagai, who also invented the cheap energy source that is transforming the world. In that philosophy, a person’s greatest dignity comes from being able to do what they do well, freely and without coercion, and to trade that skill with others. This is symbolized by the contract. If a person is not allowed to achieve or must operate under coercion, then that robs them of their spiritual dignity.

However, there is the problem of the so-called beggars in Spain, who have nothing to give and want what you have – and may be willing to do violence to get it. They cannot live on their own merits, and they aren’t willing to abide by the rules of civilization. What does the world owe them? The libertarians, or Yagaiists, would argue, the world owes them nothing. Leisha feels there is something wrong with this, but it takes her a while to realize what.

The Sleepless are superior in nearly every way to the Sleepers, and that is why they come to be hated and feared. They cannot engage with the rest of the world in equal trade because they are not born equal. They come to the conclusion that their only recourse is to withdraw from society into an isolated refuge called Sanctuary. Again, Leisha does not think this is the right move.

Finally, as she and her twin sister Alice (who is not a Sleepless) rescue a Sleepless child from an abusive home – and Alice basically saves everybody, much to Leisha’s surprise – she realizes the truth. This is where the refutation happens. Trade is not linear. It is more like a web. A “beggar in Spain” is not fated to permanently be a beggar; they may have something of value to give that only becomes apparent later, like Alice. Human society is an ecology, so you give what you can when you can, not knowing whether you will receive something in return now or later, or even if the person you benefit will go on to benefit someone else. However, by giving when it is needed, and not expecting something in return immediately, the whole ecology benefits–including the so-called elite.

This is where we get stuck when we consider libertarianism in the political arena today. There is often the attitude of “what’s in it for me?” The benefit may not be immediately apparent, but there is a benefit to us all. We are not individuals free-floating out there, tethered to no one, reliant only on ourselves. We are part of an ecology, and all of us are necessary parts of that ecology. Even the beggars.

To Kenzo Yagai she said, Trade isn’t always linear. You missed that. If Stewart gives me something, and I give Stella something, and ten years from now Stella is a different person because of that and gives something to someone else as yet unknown – it’s an ecology. An ecology of trade, yes, each niche needed, even if they’re not contractually bound. Does a horse need a fish? Yes.

To Tony she said, Yes, there are beggars in Spain who trade nothing, give nothing, do nothing. But there are more than beggars in Spain. Withdraw from the beggars, you withdraw from the whole damn country. And you withdraw from the possibility of the ecology of help.

This review originally appeared on Books Worth Reading.