Monday, October 10, 2011

Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress

I read this interesting Sci-Fi for Calico Reaction's book club.  I wasn't too thrilled with it.  

On the other hand.... I'm enjoying the Book Club a lot.  There's a lot to be said for discovering books I might not have seen otherwise, whether I like 'em all or not...   

Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress
Kress won a Nebula Award and a Hugo Award for this book, which says a lot about what other people who know books thought about this book when it came out back in 1993.  Actually, it is remarkable to see the possible future through Kress’s ideas.
When I first read the back cover, I made assumptions regarding the story.  “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.”
Yes, this happens in the story, and yes, this is a decent summary to catch the interest of someone who wants to read the book.  But “slightest edge” threw me off.  “Sleepless” means never getting tired or any of the other symptoms that draw us to sleep and re-energize.  Being sleepless is not a slight edge, it is sudden access to all the brain and all the time to access it, plus foregoing aging and putting off death indefinitely.  The mob rioting is a response to the drastic difference between Sleepers and Sleepless, which is so big, competition is wiped out leaving Sleepers reluctantly (at first) dependent on the Sleepless.  The rioting makes complete sense.  I would feel outraged to suddenly be found so stupid my hopes and dreams and accomplishments were suddenly viewed as minimal or nothing.
The book is separated into four different books spanning almost a hundred years.  Each separation takes the reader right out of the current conflict and away from characters followed and plops them down again some thirty years later.  Four times I had to catch up on decisions made, some of which I was so sad to discover.  Leisha encouraged her mother-in-law and amazing genetic researcher to leave a compound she had created in New Mexico, for example.  In one book Leisha saw the compound as an escape and wondered what Susan Melling saw in the empty desert.  In the next book Leisha has been at that same compound for thirty years.  Ouch!  The reader took me through the events that led up to that choice, but it was still a shock to me.  I felt Leisha had given up when she was the only one who could stand up to the other Sleepless.  It made me feel the antagonist, Jennifer, was too smart and too conniving and there was nothing anyone could do about it.  Of course, that was likely the author’s intention.
This book felt very serious overall.  It was somber, frightening, depressing.  People make all kinds of bad choices and looking them over a span of time did not improve them, the choices or the people.  I kept waiting for someone to step up to be consistently hopeful, truthful, optimistic or at least lucky.  I was satisfied with the ending to the extent of recognizing the author’s full circle.  Time does open opportunities and changes things and given enough time, there is hope again.  I am still jealous of the idea of using a full brain for a full 24 hours.
Would I recommend this book?  Not casually.  This is a cynical look at humanity, a godless humanity, which is worse than reality.  It is thought provoking as quoted by Publishers Weekly on the back cover.  For me this book was challenging for two reasons.  First for the scope of view and complexity of the idea.  I was impressed with the size of this book crammed into 400 pages.  It was challenging to stay focused and read it.  The main push for me to finish was not eagerness to see what happens next, but the constant knowledge that it was overdue at the library.  There’s no way I would have put it down mid-way, though, even if progressing through it was often painful.  I had to know if the author found hope and how. 

So how would I rate Beggars in Spain?  Uh… Enter At Your Own Risk, which is making up a rating.  I think if someone wants to read this book, I would not say “don’t”, if the idea of godlessness and hopelessness is not a deterrent.  To someone who is “just looking”, I would say “you’ll be fine without reading this one.”  If you’re still interested, read someone else’s review.