What if you could genetically engineer babies to turn off the necessity to sleep? What if, with all that extra time, those children turned out to be super intelligent? And what if there were other consequences as well, that really hadn’t been anticipated?
That’s the premise of Beggars in Spain. While the science may be somewhat wobbly – sleep deprivation is a torture technique, so surely there would be greater consequences on the negative side – the point of the book is the social ramifications. Because of course, it’s only a small minority of foetuses who get this modification, thus creating a brand new minority group – one with what looks like enormous advantages over ordinary people, or Sleepers.
The focus is on Leisha, a Sleepless, whose sister Alice is a Sleeper and who often serves as a counterpoint to Leisha. The narrative skips through several stages of Leisha’s life, which I really like as a way of exploring developing social expectations, ideas and consequences. Firstly, Leisha is born, grows up, and goes to college. Then she is in her 40s, a lawyer, and American society has changed radically around her – there’s a huge reaction against the Sleepless, and the Sleepless themselves are more and more disillusioned by ‘normal’ society. To the point where many are starting to segregate themselves. Twenty years later and society has once again altered radically, with a hideous class system such that Kress draws deliberate parallels with Rome and the old ‘bread and circuses’ maxim. Then yet another couple of decades later things are changing for the Sleepless, and there are likely to be consequences for the world… but that, presumably, is for the next book.
Not being American, I think there were subtle (and not so subtle) digs at American society that didn’t really make sense to me. There’s a lot of discussion about American society not appreciating individual effort and problems with the notion of equality and so on that, while I got what Kress was talking about, didn’t have the immediate or historical resonances that I suspect a well-read American might pick up. Nonetheless this is an intriguing novel that combines generally engaging characters and genuine moral difficulties; there’s some action, there’s some intense political discussion, there’s some surprising technological development and totally retrograde societal change. I’m going to be getting the sequel.