Beggars in Spain


Naomi Kress

(narrated by Cassandra Campbell)

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is beggars-in-spain.jpg
image credit:Audible UK

Review by Kris Vyas-Myall

Sometimes you end up reading not the book you expected but the book you needed. This is one of those cases.

I had heard references to Beggars in Spain in passing over the years. That it was an expansion of a well-received novella. It was nominated for a number of major awards at the time (along with its sequel). But it has largely fallen off people’s radars and appears to be out of the print in the UK.  The audiobook is still available, so it became my medium of choice.

I am not sure why but I had expected something more akin to Queen City Jazz or Parable of the Sower. A post-apocalyptic tale of survival and genetic manipulation. Instead it is a near-future tale asking a moral question. If you met a beggar in Spain, should you give them money when they ask you, given they can do nothing for you in return?

In order to explore this Nancy Kress sets up two elements. First of all, the structural. A small group of children are modified so they no longer need to sleep. In doing so they become more intelligent, have increased life-span, and are able to amass much larger wealth. As such you have a group that are actually more successful due to natural advantage than through any systemic bias.

The second element is the philosophical. Kenzo Yagai is a genius who builds an amazing source of energy and sells it to the American government. Setting himself up as a cross between Elon Musk and Ayn Rand, he ends creating the philosophy of Yagaiism, whereby the worth of an individual is what they can supply to the community. The sleepless set this up and see those that do require sleep as simply beggars to their success.

Between these two forms and over a long period of time we follow, in particular, two of the sleepless who operate at different ends of the philosophical continuum. Leticia believes that they should use their increased knowledge and privilege to help the sleepers. Jennifer believes that sleepers will always hate them, wanting to create a separate society. Creating between very much a Professor X vs Magneto situation, albeit one with less super-powered battles and more debates on the nature of wealth distribution.

This story is expertly told, both by Kress’ writing and Campbell’s narration. This could easily descend into dull didacticism but for me it all felt like it flowed naturally and created a believable buildup of the world. Campbell’s voice added to this further being able to beautifully display the increased frustration Leticia is feeling at the world around her.

I don’t want to spoil the ending to this book but needless to say it stands alone well without needing to read the sequels and the conclusion is that the world cannot be as black and white as either Yagaiists or sleeper supremacists like to make it seem.

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