Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress: Review

beggars in spainChildren who never sleep! “Sign me up for that,” said no one ever.

In Beggars in Spain, genetically modified children are en vogue. You can have a child “fully loaded” with all the bells and whistles: specific hair and eye colour, height, intelligence, whatever. The most controversial and least tested alteration is the secretive sleep modification. This removes the need for sleep, so you have a kid who is awake all the time! Yay! It is recommended that the parents of a child like this be wealthy enough to provide 24 hour childcare. Just because your kid doesn’t sleep, doesn’t mean you don’t have to.

Roger Camden is an uber rich asshole who wants one of these modified children. The theory is that a human who can’t sleep is able to do more and learn more than all those dumbass regular kids who need their 8 hours. I guess he doesn’t expect his kid to be robbing banks, or plotting his murder with its free time. Roger gets what he wants, a perfect sleepless daughter he names Leisha. There was a problem though during the implantation and Roger and his incubator, I mean wife, are expecting twins. The second daughter, Alice, is just a regular unmodified girl. Gross.

Leisha and Alice grow up together with the worst parents in the world. Roger has no use for Alice, while dear Mom is disgusted by Leisha. As expected, nurture has as much affect as nature. Alice grows into an angry adult; Leisha an overachiever.

Leisha’s father drills it into her head that she is better than regular people. He has a system of beliefs called Yagaiism, which is like objectivism, where anyone who doesn’t have something to trade is useless. Leisha often questions this. Where does her sister fit in this system?

The world embraces these Sleepless humans the way it embraces anyone who is different: not at all. It becomes an increasingly hostile to these children as they grow into super-intelligent adults. People are afraid of them, and when people are afraid, they lash out. The Sleepless close ranks in fear for their lives, but a super race of humans creating their own community doesn’t sit will with anyone either.

Beggars in Spain is rather fascinating. First of all, sleepless children. Nap time is the best time. Why wouldn’t you want this? And as weird as sleep is, if you think about it being unconscious and vulnerable for hours is weird, sleep is wonderful! What about dreaming too? Think of all the art that would never happen. Then you have your kid wandering around watching everyone while they sleep. That’s creepy.

The novella was published in 1991. If you remember the 1990s, it was a time when some parents were obsessed with having ‘special’ children. There were baby classes to make them smarter. Parents tried to get them to potty train/walk/talk/read earlier than other people’s kids. There were the Baby Einstein videos too. This is just an example of that taken to the extreme- creating super intelligent children without thinking about the consequences. Unsurprisingly, even some of the parents of these kids turn on them. Not needing sleep is an odd thing.

Beggars in Spain is an interesting and thought provoking piece of speculative fiction. I’m not sure when this story takes place. It’s in some distant future time. There are hover cars and a safe renewable energy source. Some of the ideas seem quaint now. People actually print out newspapers from street corner computers. I guess Kress couldn’t imagine a device that could be carried in a pocket providing news from all over the world at the time.


  1. That seems like a lot going on for a novella! And seriously, who would think children who don't sleep is a good idea??

  2. This sounds like a great read! I will have to check it out. :)

  3. Oh dear, children who don't sleep long is surely problem enough! Though the release date makes it more appealing, for the futuristic elements you mention and just the way it was written differently.

    1. I think parents would be more interested in being able to keep their children sleeping through the night.

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