I’m up early waiting for the sunrise in Arizona (it’s my last day here), so I thought I’d use this time in the dark wisely and post a book review of the latest novel I’ve finished: Beggars in Spain, by Nancy Kress.
Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress (1993, 438 pages, Science Fiction)
This book has been in the stack by my bedside for some time. I’m not sure exactly why I didn’t want to read it, but something about the concept put me off. So I kept passing it over. What a mistake! As soon as I opened the cover and read the first paragraph, Beggars in Spain sunk its story-hooks in me and refused to let go.
Beggars in Spain is a tale of biological advantages. It poses the question: what would happen to society if some of it’s members never needed to sleep? Kress primarily explores the economic and discriminatory aspects of Sleepers versus Sleepless (she dwells on the truism that humans love to hate each other and will use any difference as an excuse to do so), but she also plumbs the interior landscapes of her characters’ struggles. This latter aspect grounds what might otherwise be a preachy science fictional social commentary and turns it into a fascinating exploration of what makes us human.
I’ve heard from friends who attended the Taos Toolbox workshop that Kress (who teaches there) emphasizes writing in scenes. This now makes perfect sense to me, as she is a master of them. Each one flings vivid characters at you, embroils them in interesting conflicts, and leaves you wondering what will happen next. The result is the rapid turning of pages. While the idea of Sleeplessness and the advantages it might confer (I don’t want to give away any plot points here) is interesting and integral to the plot, it is Kress’ deft touch with characters that kept me reading. All of her characters are flawed – engaging and unlikeable in equal measure. Reading about their adventures is a little like watching your friends and family — rooting for them when they make choices of which you approve and frowning with worry when they refuse your advice and head stubbornly down a path you see leading to ruin.
The tale stretches over several generations yet retains an intimate perspective, and Kress wraps up the conflict with a climax that makes sense within the narrative arc of the story but still feels like (somewhat) of a surprise. The ending was not earth-shattering, but it was satisfying. When I closed the book and set it down I felt that sense of loss a good book inspires – it was over and I could never again read it for the first time.
But you can.