Beggars and Choosers (Sleepless #02) – Nancy Kress (1994)
‘The Sleepless dominate the world. But are these expert genetic engineers about to create a new one?
Ordinary mortals think so: after a revolution in the twenty-second century, the Sleepless have spawned a new elite – a handful of people called the SuperSleepless. Miranda Sharifi is their leader; a revolutionary with superintelligent followers, unimaginable technology, huge amounts of money and passionate ideals.
But what is the feared and fabled Miranda up to in her island hideaway of Huevos Verdes? is she trying to find a cure for the mass starvation, catastrophic accidents and viruses plaguing the world? Or is she doing something altogether more sinister?
Diana Covington, an intelligence agent, is sent to investigate. It’s her most challenging mission. It may also be her last…’
Blurb from the 1996 ROC paperback edition.
Kress’ sequel to ‘Beggars in Spain’ is a far more focused affair, narrated in turn by three characters, Drew Arlen, The Lucid Dreamer (who featured in BIS), Diana Covington, (a young woman who is recruited as a GEAS agent to follow Miranda Sharifi, one of the genetically engineered ‘SuperSleepless) and Billy Washington, a sixty-eight year old man who lives in a ‘Liver’ community with a ladyfriend, Annie, and her daughter Lizzie.
The SuperSleepless have created their own island though nanotechnology and are conducting mysterious experiments there. With the Sleepless confined to their satellite world Sanctuary, humanity on earth is divided between Donkeys (who study and work) and Livers, who never have to work and who are provided with homes, food and clothing by the government.
However, technology is beginning to break down around the world in devices which use duragem components. A nanovirus has been released that eats duragem.
Drew Allen has been performing his hypnotic performances of ‘The Warrior’ a piece that has been subtly altering the attitudes of the Livers in order to make them more proactive and self-reliant.
Against this backdrop Diana Covington is recruited to shadow Miranda Sharifi, leader of the SuperSleepless. Diana attends a government hearing where Miranda is attempting to have a nanotechnological ‘Cell Cleaner’ trialled. This would live in the human body and destroy cancer cells, bolster the immune system and keep people healthy. For her own reasons, Miranda sabotages her own case and when she leaves court is replaced by a double. Diana is the only person who sees Miranda leave some time later and follows her to the East Olenta Area.
Meanwhile Drew gets kidnapped by redneck human separatists who consider all genetically engineered humans to be ‘inhuman’ and who, it appears, have been the ones releasing the nanovirus.
Diana gets involved with a family, having saved a little girl’s life, and thus meets up with the third narrator, Billy Washington whose loyalties are constantly torn between Annie (the little girl Lizzie’s mother), Diana and Miranda Sharifi whom Billy met out in the woods. Billy’s friend had a heart attack when the villagers were hunting for rabid raccoons, and Miranda provided rugs that kept him alive until he could be given proper medical assistance.
Billy knows that the SuperSleepless have a base in the woods, but does not trust anyone else with this secret.
As society begins to collapse due to technology breakdowns Diana has to piece together what is happening, and work out how much the SuperSleepless have to do with the collapse of society.
Kress should be applauded for going in a different direction with this sequel and keeping the Sleepless (for the most part) completely off the page. Also, ‘Beggars in Spain’ was written against a sweeping timescale which went from Leisha Camden’s conception through decades of change in society, whilst this novel covers only a few months and concentrates on a very restricted number of characters who have major parts to play in the narrative. This, I think, makes it a more successful novel, one which revolves around the actions of a very small number of people which affects the entire world.
The result of this three-voiced narrative is that sometimes one gets the same event from two very different points of view. Conversely, things happen off-page of which the narrators have no direct knowledge and it is up to the reader to determine the truth of the matter.
Where for instance, did the leader of the rednecks get the duragem-dissembler in the first place? He claims that his people had stolen it from the Sleepless, although it seems unlikely that they would be so careless with their security, and as it is shown that they later knew who had the dissembler, it seems possible they allowed it to be stolen.
This is presumably a deliberate literary device to demonstrate the unfathomable thinking of the SuperSleepless who are capable of playing infinitely complex strategic games.
The author mischievously leaves the reader almost in the position of someone flung unprepared into ‘The Moral Maze.’
The SuperSleepless (since a new biological virus has been released via genemod rabbits which is fatal to humans and very contagious) end up distributing hypodermics of Miranda’s ‘Cell Cleaner’.
Diana, Lizzie, Billy and Annie had already received injections to save them from the virus.
The contents of the hypodermic however are far more than at first described. Humans thus augmented can now absorb nutrients directly through the skin by, for instance, lying in in mud or a pile of leaves. Famine will theoretically never be an issue again.
There is a scary question at the heart of this which is ‘Should a substantially more intelligent community be allowed to decide what is best for Homo Sapiens?’. Most rational humans would immediately say ‘no.’ I suspect, but Kress makes a good case for the ayes and I find it a difficult question to answer. So far, we haven’t done very well deciding things for ourselves.
Tepper’s ‘The Fresco’ addresses the same point in a different way, as did ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’ back in the Fifties, although Michael Rennie did at least have the decency to give Earth an ultimatum.