Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Guest Shameless Retroreview Plug: The Beggars Trilogy

Nancy Kress's Beggars Trilogy (Beggars in Spain, Beggars and Choosers, and Beggars Ride) is an exploration of the world she created in her Hugo and Nebula Award winning novella, also called Beggars in Spain. All three books are among my favorite reads of all time, full of interesting ideas and unique characters, but I don't believe they always get the recognition they deserve in the science fiction community. This trilogy follows the path of a near-future United States--and by extension, the rest of the world--as it deals with the economic, social, and philosophical upheaval brought on by advancing technology. Kress's understanding of human gifts and frailties, both as individuals and communities, results in a view that is simultaneously frightening and hopeful; perhaps that is why I find the course they plot so plausible. I highly recommend that any fan of science fiction, or even simple student of the human condition, read these amazing stories.

Beggars in Spain follows the life of Leisha Camden, one of the first of a literal new breed of humanity. As the favored daughter of a powerful data industrialist she is given every possible advantage, which in this world includes in utero genetic engineering. This includes exceptional physical appearance and intelligence, freedom from any genetic defects, and even a newly developed modification: the ability to live without sleeping. Because Leisha's father begrudges his body the few hours a night it demands from him, he ensures that his daughter will never have to give in to such a fundamental frailty.

As Leisha grows into a young woman, though, the doctors and geneticists tracking the development of her and the other Sleepless discover that the effects of their tinkering reach far beyond their intent. The biological advantages these children were granted are so great that they stretch the definition of human--or at least, the limits of what unmodified society is willing to accept as human. In a capitalist society that is predicated on the notion of competition driving advancement, the Sleepless are simply so much better at competing that their only real competition is among themselves. And, as with other times in human history when great economic power is held by those without the political or physical power to hold it, lawful competition must eventually be set aside in favor of a more effective means of redistributing wealth.

These big social concepts are almost entirely explored through Leisha's relationships with the people around her. Most important is the strained bond between her and her unmodified fraternal twin sister, Alice. Alice is, both by biological reality and conscious choice, everything Leisha is not, and she provides a proxy through which we can see how Sleepers deal with their new reality as an inherently inferior race. Alice's counterpart among the Sleepless is Jennifer Sharifi, as intentionally inhuman as Alice is human, and a leading voice in Sleepless internal politics. The other loves, rivals, and simple acquaintances in Leisha's life all play a role in shaping her personal philosophy and vision of how to bring together a society that is dangerously, perhaps irreparably, fractured. Finally, to close the circle, a new generation of SuperSleepless are developed that are as far beyond the Sleepless as the Sleepless are beyond the Sleepers. 10/10

(The following two books will be discussed in less detail to try to minimize spoilers, but some may still slip through.)

Beggars and Choosers is the follow-up to Beggars in Spain, and in my opinion is the weakest book of the trilogy due to some pacing issues. Sleeper and Sleepless society has entered into an uneasy truce, though as with most truces it is largely an excuse to prepare for the next battle.

In the meantime, however, life goes on for the unmodified humans that no longer live on Earth so much as inhabit it. Beggars and Choosers tells the story of the Livers and their Donkeys, the regular people who have been made economically obsolete and the upper class that controls society and 'works' for the Livers by providing them the food, shelter, and leadership they need. Most of the book deals with these lower classes trying to discover the machinations of the elite Sleepless and almost godlike SuperSleepless by following Diana Covington, an agent of the Donkey government, as she infiltrates a Liver community. This particular group of Livers has a story about a magical place they call Eden which Diana believes is a key to unraveling the wheels-within-wheels plans of the Supers.

A key parallel plotline is narrated by Drew Arlen, Leisha's adopted son. He is, if anything, even more human than Leisha's sister Alice, physically and emotionally crippled but possessing a talent for creating holographic stories that touch their viewers at a subconscious level. Arlen's self-pitying attitude is put to the test when he meets a group of humans who, though they are not disabled as he is, face even bigger challenges because they are social and economic outcasts in the Sleepless-dominated society. Rating: 8.5/10

Beggars Ride shows the final outcome of the social transformation begun in the first two books and returns to the outstanding quality of Beggars in Spain. The truce that held in Choosers is very definitively over and the subsequent conflict can only be resolved by changing the way in which both Sleeper and Sleepless society functions, and the only guidepost available for mapping out the future of human civilization is that what we've done in the past can no longer work. Rating: 10/10

2 comments:

billblais said...

Well, 'Beggars in Spain' is now going on my library list immediately (I didn't read the commentary on the others, as I dislike knowing too much about books I read beforehand). I haven't ready any of Nancy Kress' work before, but this review definitely has me intrigued.

I think these 'retroreviews' are a great idea for giving older works their due.

John said...

Great, I'm glad I got somebody interested! Like I said, even though the first book is sometimes thought of as a 'significant work' I really think this series deserves a higher profile in the SF community. They're truly excellent books. Hope you enjoy!