This story first appears as a novella. A novel version was later
released. This review is based on the novella.
The novella won the Nebula
novella of the year award in 1991.
Beggars In Spain explores the
personal and social consequences of a genetically-modified type of human.
In a sense, the modification seems minor. Although some of the modified
people were given genes which were likely to improve intelligence, athletic
ability or beauty, the attribute which is central to the story is that they do
not need to sleep. The result which is presented in most of the book is
that the "Sleepless" have a lot of extra time with which they can
study, practice and work. This leads to the Sleepless doing better than
others in school and being more successful at work. The rest of the
population who must sleep ("Sleepers") are jealous of what the
The story begins with a
wealthy businessman deciding to have a genetically modified baby - with genes to
make sleep unnecessary and to favor the chances of higher intelligence.
His wife does not really want these modifications, but does not prevent the
procedure from happening. An accident occurs so that the wife become
pregnant with fraternal twins - one genetically modified (Leisha) and the other
not (Alice). The early parts of the story deal with the issues in the
resulting family. The father prefers Leisha. The wife prefers Alice and the wife also becomes a heavy drinker. Alice feels unwanted by the father
and feels unable to accomplish what Leisha can. Leisha is disliked by her
mother and has a strained relationship with her sister...
As Leisha grows up, she has
more dealings with the outside world and gets to know other Sleepless
people. More of the story becomes involved in the status of the Sleepless
in the world - in particular, the resentment and hostility they face from many
members of the unmodified population. The genetic modification procedure
isn't cheap - most of the Sleepless are from upper middle class families, with
a few from upper class backgrounds. So, they have both the time and
resources to be very successful. Not all Sleepers are hostile to the
Sleepless, but there's an atmosphere of bad feelings. And some are
victims of violence. The Sleepless begin to prepare an isolated community
for themselves where they hope they'll be away from the hatred and be able to
defend their community if necessary.
Kress presents ideas on the
social issues of genetic modification of people. She also occasionally
makes reference to the issue from which the title is derived. What is the
social logic of helping those who can't at this time give you a reasonable
exchange for your help?
The story neither presents
the genetic modification as the creation of an unqualifiedly better world, nor
as a cautionary tale that it is better to stay back in the good old days.
It manages to show a world that is not as simple as either of those versions.