Beggars in Spain - Nancy Kress - Probably a Communist Text


What draws me to Nancy Kress is her background studying English, getting a degree from SUNY Plattsburgh. I'm no New Yorker but an English program is an English program. Add to that that I came up with the novum for this novel while brainstorming ideas for short stories. 

I told my friend Bob Wilson, "Hey, what do you think about a story with people that are biogenetically engineered to not require sleep." 

"Yeah, that's a good idea, but it's already been done. Go read Nancy Kress's Beggars in Spain."

I did read it. I liked it a lot. I also never wrote a story about the sleepless. I guess I still could. After all, part of science fiction is that it operates as a megatext where everyone recycles the same ideas over and over, hopefully adding to them and thinking about concepts in more complex ways--but not always. 

That leads in to questions about entertainment vs. value. Science fiction is sometimes a galvanizing force for the future or a predictor of ugly things to come--ugly things best avoided, but more often than not science fiction is just about entertainment.

Yet, Beggars in Spain is good because it deals intelligently with the possibility for genetic enhancement of humanity and the certain divide that would occur between the enhanced and the unenhanced. Making the book even better, that commentary maps quite well to current issues of racism and discrimination in America over perceived differences between peoples, whether cultural, social, racial, political, economic, or whatever. Look around, read some facebook walls, and you'll notice that people have insulated themselves in the 21st century. We don't want to be around people that disagree with us or people that are different than us. Because if people are different with us they will probably disagree with us, and if they disagree with us, then we'll be forced to reckon with the fact that people are different than us--and the cycle continues on and on like the worst Fibonacci series ever.

In Beggars in Spain, the sleepless ultimately leave earth to create their own independent kingdom on an orbiting satellite. Unenhanced people are just too threatened by the sleepless. Peaceful cohabitation is impossible.

I don't think sleeplessness will likely ever become a thing for humanity, genetically aided or no. There's a simple equation to take into consideration with humans that goes like this: what is possible / the cost. So, sure, science could maybe engineer some way for humans to restore themselves without requiring sleep, but what would it cost? Since sleep works so well and is free, the likelihood of inventing a way to go without sleep is super low. Not to mention, most people like sleep. They really like it. I'm not even sure if humans could maintain psychological wholeness without sleep, since sleep allows our brains time to decompress, to crunch away at the meaning of the events we've recently experienced, folding them into the total experience of our lives. That's what dreams do. Dreams reveal the symbolic world that governs human thinking. A sleepless person, then, would likely not have an experience commensurate with what we recognize as a human experience. But, with a nod to John Carpenter's The Thing, the sleepless look the same as regular, old humans.

That the sleepless look the same as everyone else allows Beggars in Spain to participate in another narrative, the longstanding fear of Communism in America. Communists look just like everyone else, but their aims and their ideology is revolutionary, is dangerous to the status quo. Add to that the fact that the sleepless--reading as Communists--wind up creating a new society where they all live together and share the profits from their work evenly and you've got a pretty good case for what the book is really doing. Not sleeping merely reads as not experiencing life individually. Isn't sleeping about the most deeply individual thing you can do? It's the one time that communication and experience with others is completely cut off. If you experience others in your dream it is only because you've created a theory of mind for them. It's a way to let you know if you actually understand the people around you. After having a dream of another person, you ask, "Does my representation of this person match up to who they are in reality?"

I should add that I'm no Joseph McCarthy here. I'm not castigating this text or trying to get Nancy Kress blacklisted. I support social programs and think our society would benefit from instituting more of them. It's instructive that Kress' sleepless are smart and become very powerful and wealthy in a short time. A society that values everyone equally doesn't give lazy people a free ride. No, it restores dignity to mankind, giving them license to respect themselves for the work they do.

One final thought about the book as a work in support of communism plays with the title itself. Consider the saying: Yes, there are beggars in Spain who trade nothing, give nothing, do nothing. Those beggars are the reason why American society has failed, are why thinking about the possibility that an alternately formed society would create is important. People trade nothing, give nothing, do nothing when the system has failed them, when the system has confirmed in every way that the beggar isn't important. Nancy Kress' Beggars in Spain gives us the possibility of a society without beggars.

For more excellent science fiction, check out Rapid Transmission's list of the top one hundred novels.