Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Review of Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress

I've long observed that people of an elitist bent tend to think they're better than other people for pretty bad reasons. This type of elitism is particularly common among Ayn Rand fans, but you can find it across the political spectrum. 

People can be elitist because they're richer, more educated, better looking, etc. or just because they happen to have certain philosophical, religious, or political beliefs. For the most part, this is bullshit. Nobody is a qualitatively better human being than others in all respects simply due to having one talent or belief or being rich or beautiful or whatever. You might be more educated than others or you might like Ayn Rand, but others might be better at woodworking or knitting than you are, or actually care about other people. Why should one of your features make you better than everybody else in all things?

But what if there really were people who could make a case for being better than the rest of us? That's the question Kress poses. Science fiction is particularly good at posing these sorts of questions. In this case, the Sleepless have 1/3 more of their life to get stuff done, but they are also smarter than the rest of us and pretty much immortal. So, when the Sleepers are elitists, you almost want to believe that they really are better.

But are they? Well, there's the rub. This is the kind of book that could have been heavy-handed, but for the most part Kress does a good job of entertaining the question without answering it for the reader, which is a hallmark of good philosophical science fiction. Somewhere I read that she described her idea as Ayn Rand versus the kind of socialism found in Ursula LeGuin's The Dispossessed. Some of the characters are heavy-handed (sometimes this gets annoying, like having a friend who constantly quotes Ayn Rand or Karl Marx) and earlier on you might think Kress is driving toward an endorsement of Yagaiism (sort of like a more nuanced version of Rand's Objectivism), but in the end you might think she's endorsing something else. And that prompts the reader to continue questioning.

The only real drawbacks have to do with the characters. As others have noted, sometimes smart people can be really stupid. One colony of Sleepless let a tyrant rule them for decades with no dissent, and almost all the Sleepless uncritically accept Yagaiism. I would expect more from them, especially if they're supposed to be better than Sleepers like us!

But overall this is a great exploration of how we could think about human differences, talents, and what we owe each other

Rating: 85/100

(This is a lightly edited version of my Goodreads review).

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