“Twenty-two thousand Sleepless on Earth, 95 percent of them in the United States. Eighty percent of those within Sanctuary. Ad since nearly all Sleepless babies were not born, not created in vitro, most Sleepless were now born inside Sanctuary. Parents across the country continued to purchase other genetic alterations: enhanced IQ, sharpened sight, a strong immune system, high cheekbones…. But not Sleeplessness.”
In 2008, Roger and Elizabeth Camden visit a doctor to ‘create’ their dream baby. A girl. Blonde. Green eyes. Tall. Slender. High intelligence. A sense of daring. All these are on the list. As well as no need to sleep. This ‘Sleepless’ program is secret, but Camden is rich and powerful enough to ferret out its existence. And there have been nineteen healthy, intelligent, psychologically normal Sleepless children born so far. The twentieth, sadly, dead. Shaken too hard by a mother who couldn’t cope with a baby who cried 24 hours a day. Fifteen years later, there are 1,082 in the US, more in the rest of the world. Later, it is learnt that the Sleepless are, in a sense, immortal.
So Leisha Camden is Sleepless number 20. She has a twin, Alice, a ‘normal’ girl, a Sleeper. Roger Camden favours Leisha, Elizabeth Camden, Alice.
“You’re sure the second fetus is no threat to my daughter?”
Susan said deliberately, “Nor is the genetically altered fetus a threat to the naturally conceived one.”
He smiled. His voice was low and wistful. “And you think that should matter to me just as much. But it doesn’t. And why should I fake what I feel?”
It is not easy being Sleepless. Sure, school work and the like are easier to handle. After all, there’s no need to sleep. But they aren’t accepted by the Sleepers. As the majority of Sleepers despise their ‘unfair’ advantage. Fast forward to 2051 and this divide has become even more severe as the We-Sleep movement is gaining momentum, with Sleepers buying products made by Sleepers, with profits going solely to Sleepers. And in the Sanctuary, funded largely by wealthy, fanatical Sleepless Jennifer Shafiri, it is the same for the powerful Sleepless, who more or less control most of the world economy. Leisha is one of the few who wants to unite this world, to bridge the economies. She is shunned by those in Sanctuary.
We progress to 2075, when Sanctuary is orbital, although it and its members are still part of the United States. And now there are the Super-Sleepless children or teens, whose brains operate at several times the speed of the Sleepless, with enhanced concentration and mnemonic capabilities. This gene modification (or genemod) though results in minor loss of motor control, so that the Super-Sleepless twitch.
If all this isn’t disturbing enough, the Sleepless Council on Sanctuary (who run the place, with the Shafiri family presiding) are faced with difficult decisions. Sleeper babies have been born to Sleepless families. A productive Sleepless is hurt in an accident and requires round-the-clock care. In the minds of many on the council, especially Jennifer Shafiri, these people are not productive. For:
“To be productive was to be fully human. To share your productivity with the community in strict fairness was to create strength and protection for all. Anyone who would try to violate either truth – to reap the benefits of community without in turn contributing productively to it – was obscene, an inhuman beggar.”
Beggars in Spain is both a terrifying and remarkable book. There is science and it is fiction. There’s plenty of politics. But the science isn’t the sort that whooshes way above your head. Kress explains it all well, weaves it in deftly, and gives us these characters, especially Miri, a Super-Sleepless, who take us through this evolving society, so like and unlike our own.
“What if you walk down that 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?”