A Review of Beggars in Spain

This article is a brief review of the short story Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress. The story was originally published as a single volume, before later being extended into a full book and sequels, which are not covered in this review. The story is a science fiction piece published in 1993 that covers themes of genetic engineering, equality, and the nature of humanity.

The Story

The premise of the book is fairly straightforward - in the near future, the wealthy are able to afford tests that allow them to genetically modify their children prior to their birth. Most people use this to allow them to have intelligent children free of genetic defects. A recent experimental method, however, allows for the generation of children that never require sleep, and are thus able to remain awake and productive without consequence 24 hours a day. The story follows a pair of twin sisters, Leisha and Alice Camden, one of whom - Leisha - is among the first of these Sleepless children, while her sister received no genetic modifications as she was an unexpected child, and is thus “normal” by any measure. Over time, the divisions between the two children become increasingly clear as each experiences pressures placed on them by Leisha's Sleepless nature. In time the two have a falling out and the story primarily focuses on Leisha as she matures and comes to terms with the place of her and her fellow Sleepless in the world. upload.wikimedia.org_wikipedia_en_thumb_6_6b_beggarsinspain_281sted_29.jpg_200px-beggarsinspain_281sted_29.jpg

As more and more Sleepless children are born, they prove to be exceptionally gifted largely owing to their ability to continue working without any need for downtime. This allows them to graduate college at exceptionally young ages and produce innovations that earn them the ire of their sleeper compatriots. When a Sleepless is killed in a car accident and their body is studied, it is revealed that the Sleepless, as a side effect of their genetic modifications, do not undergo normal aging processes, and are thus of undetermined longevity. This insight, coupled with the advantages the Sleepless have in society, leads to an extreme backlash and increasing tensions between the two groups. The more extreme among the Sleepless work to establish their own isolated community that they govern independently, while Leisha tries to reconcile the differences between the two groups and restore the peace and equal exchange between all members of society, both sleepers and Sleepless. The remainder of the novel follows Leisha as she deals with interactions between these two opposing factions in the face of increasing pressure to choose a side.


I found this story to be very compelling, and it was easily one of the best short science fiction stories I have read to date. At the outset I thought it would exclusively follow two girls as they develop in unique lifestyles, but with time the larger societal and ethical implications came into play which undoubtedly enriched the story. While the premise of the story is obviously science fiction, it is a very accessible branch of science fiction in the sense that humanity may develop the capability of genetically modifying the unborn in the next century or so, and the ethical implications of this technology are profound and will need to be addressed at length before society can decide how to proceed. Even without the ability to generate sleepless children, the capability for the rich to produce better equipped offspring and our inability to predict the long term consequences of these modifications will likely make this a hot button issue for the near future.

The story is unified by themes that relate to its title and the eponymous beggars in Spain. In essence, Leisha initially touts a worldview that suggests that all human interactions are based on equal trade, and that if one were to encounter a beggar one might offer them some money, but if one were to encounter hundreds of beggars one could not make the same offer. Over time, Leisha has to wrestle with the notion of whether or not beggars deserve anything they did not earn; in other words, do the superior Sleepless owe anything to the increasingly hostile and inferior sleepers of the world. This premise meshes well with the increasingly inflammatory rhetoric an fear that drive interactions between these groups as time passes and society begins to increasingly favor restrictions on the activities of the Sleepless. While the story ends on a somewhat open note from a plot perspective that likely explains why it was readily expanded into a series of books, it is able to close the story arc on the equality of trade and what one person “owes” a less well equipped individual in the mind of Leisha. In this way, the book is able to end with myriad options for future story avenues while still providing a satisfying end to an exciting and intriguing story.

My rating: 9.5/10

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