Review: Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress

08Dec09

Title: Beggars in Spain

Author: Nancy Kress

Publisher: Eos

Year Published: 1993; my edition, 2004

Other Info: The original novella won the Hugo and Nebula awards.

Spoilers: Some; the major one preceded with a warning.

Recommended: Yes, if you like your science fiction with some crunchy biology and political philosophy, wrapped in major world events, dipped in family dysfunction, with a light sprinkling of character-driven plottiness (technical term).

I read this book for two reasons. The first is that I haven’t read a whole lot of Kress’ fiction, but I love her how-to writing advice, and I wanted to see how that filters into her fiction. I had read one of Kress’ other novels, but I didn’t enjoy it, and figured this was the place to try again if I was to ever get into her novel-length work. The second reason was that PLP* Caroline has very different tastes than I do when it comes to science fiction, and I suspected this would be something she would enjoy, but didn’t want to recommend it until I’d read it myself.

The verdict? I’m glad I talked myself into reading this.

This book was not without its flaws, but it was an engaging read with a lot of interesting ideas. Perhaps my favorite aspect is how frustrating it was. That may seem odd, but what I mean is that every character was a firm believer in their position, and generally ignored evidence and/or the constraints of reality to pursue their goals and beliefs, while at the same time struggling to remain in relationship with those they opposed. People acted like idiots even when they were geniuses, everyone’s position was understandable, and all of the damage came from peoples’ actions rather than external events.

A sense of inevitability pervaded the conflicts, which seemed amplified by the leaps forward in time. With decades left to summary and implication, the powerlessness of even the most influential individuals became clear. It allowed the characters to instigate events and in some ways control them, without the entire world centering on them. In the gaps, the narrative implies the world marching on with the various players participating, but not necessarily dictating events.

The danger with huge, world-altering events and manipulations is that the world is insanely complex, and it’s easy to oversimplify and make things seem false and forced. For the most part Kress does a good job of avoiding this, aided by the gaps in the narrative, but the progression of events did seem somewhat predictable on the macro-level. (End-of-book spoilers) The isolationist community of superior beings eventually produces a generation of even more superior beings, whom they regard with the same fear and disdain as they were regarded. This ending was absolutely fitting for the book, but it was not surprising; it was not a revelation. Its saving grace was that the characters who belonged to this third category were interesting and sympathetic—but that didn’t prevent me from reacting with “Ah. Yes. That’s what was going to happen. Okay then.” (/Spoilers)

The book centers on a handful of people who manipulate the world’s events and discuss philosophy, politics, biology, and economics with endless eloquence. Most of the characters are ‘Sleepless,’ which also gives them abnormally high IQs and immune systems so robust that they are essentially immortal. The Sleepless are well-educated about the positions they are taking, which makes much of the discourse logical within the frame of the story, but about halfway through I was tired of the philosophical debates. The late introduction of a fairly minor but plot-essential character was refreshing, since he was neither extremely intelligent nor particularly well-educated, but he comes late in the game and I was already tired of the intellectual conversations.

Don’t get me wrong—I enjoyed this book immensely. But I think in the end it fell victim to its ambition and “message.” The suspension of disbelief in this book didn’t relate to the speculative element, the Sleepless, but rather to the domination of a single issue in the world. Every once in a while a nod is given to the fact that there might be other things going on, and perhaps it is just the main characters who are so focused on the Sleepless, but mostly that’s discounted and the complexities of the world are ignored. Which is fine, if the book moves quickly enough to keep me from noticing. But one too many long-winded speeches kept me from falling into that groove, and I was left with an off-kilter feeling.

There are more books in this series. I’m not sure if I want to read them, merely because I think the first stands so well on its own. I think instead I might seek out Kress’ short fiction (she has a collection out, NANO COMES TO CLIFFORD FALLS AND OTHER STORIES, the title story of which I enjoyed immensely).

*Platonic Life Partner. It’s an open relationship.

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