“Beggars in Spain”, by Nancy Kress

The second paragraph of the third section of “Beggars in Spain” is:

She had studied the theory of cold fusion at school, and her global studies teacher had traced the changes in the world resulting from Yagai’s patented, low-cost applications of what had, until him, been unworkable theory: the rising prosperity of the Third World; the death throes of the old communistic systems; the decline of the oil states; the renewed economic power of the United States. Her study group had written a news script, filmed with the school’s professional-quality equipment, about how a 1985 American family lived with expensive energy costs and a belief in tax-supported help, while a 2019 family lived with cheap energy and a belief in the contract as the basis of civilization. Parts of her own research puzzled Leisha.

Back when I was first attempting to work through the joint winners of the Hugo and Nebula Awards, more than twenty years ago, I had the silly idea of doing them in alphabetical order by title, which meant that this was the second I got to after “Bears Discover Fire” (at that point, American Gods, Among Others, Ancillary Justice and All Systems Red all lay in the future). In 2001 I wrote the following (links have been updated):

I think this was the first work by Kress that I ever read, just around the time that my own daughter was born in 1997. The story begins with the planned conception of a genetically modified child, Leisha Camden, and her “normal” twin sister, Alice, and follows them until their early twenties, so as a new father myself I was gripped from the start. All parents know that their child is the most marvellous creature in the world, of course, and part of the monstrosity of Roger Camden is that he barely acknowledges the existence of the ordinary Alice and concentrates his affection on the augmented Leisha. The dysfunctional family of Camden, his wife who gradually disintegrates, the geneticist who Camden subsequently marries, and the girls themselves, is all too credible and painfully (if sparsely) portrayed; likewise Leisha’s discovery of a new community with the other children born with the same modification that she has. However it is not the main point of the story.

Leisha has been genetically modified so that she does not need to sleep. Along with this most obvious change come other benefits: the Sleepless (for she is among the first of many such children) are more intelligent, more capable, and more content than the Sleepers (as we normal humans become known). As the Sleepless progress to maturity they have to deal with the prejudices that many display against them. The story of prejudice against children who are not just different but who are feared to be superior is an old SF trope, going back at least to 1911 and J.D. Beresford’s The Hampdenshire Wonder. Kress’ triumph here is that she displays a certain compassion for both the ordinary humans who are terrified by the emergence of the Sleepless, and indeed for the isolationists among the Sleepless who want to build a new society for themselves, leaving cut off the rest of humanity. Howwever we are in no doubt that her sympathies lie with those including Leisha Camden who want to maintain a single human society including both Sleepers and Sleepless.

Dealing with prejudice is a hall-mark of Kress’ best work; it is the main theme of her Nebula-winning “Out of All Them Bright Stars” and prominent also in her other Nebula-winning novella, “The Flowers of Aulit Prison”. Her understanding is that many, perhaps even most, will be prejudiced against those who seem insufficiently “human”, but those of us who do not feel that way must stand up and be counted against such bigotry, even if it seems that the odds are stacked against us. It’s a powerful and profound argument. But that too is not the main point of this particular story.

The main theme of the story concerns the responsibilities of those who have favourable positions in society towards those who are less fortunate. The intellectual underpinning of the argument here is a fictional philosopher/scientist called Kenzo Yagai, who has not only invented cheap energy but propounds a moral code based on these principles: “That spiritual dignity comes from supporting one’s life through one’s own efforts, and from trading the results of those efforts in mutual cooperation throughout the society. That the symbol of this is the contract. And that we need each other for the fullest, most beneficial trade.” In a crucial passage where Leisha debates this issue with Tony, an embittered fellow Sleepless, later martyred, he introduces the metaphor of the story’s title:

“What if you walk down a street in Spain and a hundred beggars each want a dollar and you say no and they have nothing to trade you but they’re so rotten with anger about what you have that they knock you down and grab it and then beat you out of sheer envy and despair?”
Leisha didn’t answer.
“Are you going to say that’s not a human scenario, Leisha? That it never happens?”
“It happens,” Leisha said evenly. “But not all that often.”
“Bullshit. Read more history. Read more newspapers. But the point is: what do you owe the beggars then? What does a good Yagaiist who believes in mutually beneficial contracts do with people who have nothing to trade and can only take?”
“You’re not–“
What, Leisha? In the most objective terms you can manage, what do we owe the grasping and nonproductive needy?”
“What I said originally. Kindness. Compassion.”
“Even if they don’t trade it back? Why?”
“Because…” She stopped.
“Why? Why do law-abiding and productive human beings owe anything to those who neither produce very much nor abide by just laws? What philosophical or economic or spiritual justification is there for owing them anything? Be as honest as I know you are.”
Leisha put her head between her knees. The question gaped beneath her, but she didn’t try to evade it. “I don’t know. I just know we do.”

Kress’ source for Yagaiism is quite explicitly the philosophy of Ayn Rand, as expressed in her 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged (famously mocked as Telemachus Sneezed by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson in the Illuminatus! trilogy). In one interview, Kress says of Rand: “although there’s something very appealing about her emphasis on individual responsibility, that you should not evade reality, you should not evade responsibility, you should not assume that it’s up to the next person to provide you with your life, with what it is that you need, whether that’s emotional, or physical… [it] lacks all compassion, and even more fundamental, it lacks recognition of the fact that we are a social species and that our society does not exist of a group of people only striving for their own ends, which is what she shows, but groups of people co-operating for mutual ends, and this means that you don’t always get what you want and your work does not always benefit you directly.”

She goes on to draw another contrast in the other direction, between the society she depicts in her own fiction and the society of Anarres in Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, but I guess this must have more relevance to the expanded, novel version of Beggars in Spain which I have not read. There is an interesting discussion of both Rand and Kress on the everything2.com discussion site. [And it’s still there, almost a quarter of a century later!] The central message of “Beggars in Spain” is that our humanity as individuals is bound up in our obligations to the rest of humanity, and if we forget that, we become less human.

It would be easy to write a didactic and boring story about how we all ought to be nice to each other, even including the two subsidiary themes identified above. “Beggars in Spain” is not that story. We have vivid characterisations of Leisha and her sister Alice, their stepmother the geneticist, and several of the other Sleepless (perhaps the father is a little too monstrous here). Also Kress has a very strong sense of place, with the Camdens’ mansion by Lake Michigan, Leisha’s student environment in Harvard, and the middle America through which she and Alice eventually flee having rescued a Sleepless child from abuse, all depicted convincingly. And there are a couple of beautiful vignettes; a scene where Leisha confronts a pregnant Alice, slightly (deliberately?) reminiscent of the end of Lolita; an earlier scene where the Sleepless kids try a drug that will make them sleep for the first time, with their sense of anticipation – and then disappointment when they all wake up hung over – wickedly portrayed. This story is strongly recommended.

I stand by pretty much all of that from 22 years ago. Two new points jumped out at me. First, the Sleepless kids’ communication, presented as a deeply clever and privileged way of staying in touch across computer networks, is basically a WhatsApp group or a private Telegram channel; the fact that everyone would have access to that sort of networked communication in the future was unthinkable in 2001.

Second, the scene with Alice barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen in the Appalachians resonates backward with Lolita, but also forward with Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead (review coming soon). Having said that, I do wonder how the daughter of a Chicago millionaire managed to get into a (not very) romantic relationship with an older man from the sticks?

Anyway, I’m glad to say that it has retained its power, a classic case of sf being not just “What if…?” but “My God! What if…?” You can get it here as a standalone novella.

That year Barrayar by Lois McMaster Bujold won the Hugo for Best Novel, and Stations of the Tide by Michael Swanwick won the Nebula. For Novelette, the Hugo went to “Gold” by Isaac Asimov, who had just died, and the Nebula to “Guide Dog” by Mike Conner; and for Short Story, the Hugo went to “A Walk in the Sun” by Geoffrey Landis, and the Nebula to “Ma Qui” by Alan Brennert. I remember reading the two shorter Hugo winners but not the Nebula winners. The Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation and the Ray Bradbury Award both went to Terminator 2: Judgement Day.

Next up in this sequence is a Connie Willis double: the short story “Even the Queen” and the novel Doomsday Book.