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Beggars in Spain

by Nency Kress

For Marcos—again


Beggars in Spain was first published in 1993, but its history began long before that. It began in my childhood, somewhere back in the Dark Ages of the 1950s.

Different writers write for very different reasons, including but not limited to the classic Hemingway quartet of “fame, glory, money, and the love of women” (or of whomever). Hemingway missed a few motivations, however, including “envy.” Being a person who needs a lot of sleep, I have always envied those who do not. In childhood, I missed all the best parts of sleepovers. In adolescence, I was asleep for those slumber-party phone calls to cute boys. As an adult, I could not stay up till 2:00 A.M. balancing work, toddlers, laundry, and social life. By needing so much sleep, I figure I have lived about two hours less per day than my peers, for about fifty years. That adds up to about four lost years and a lot of envy.

So I created people who never need to sleep at all. Take that, metabolism! Vicarious triumph through the power of imagination!

The first time I created the Sleepless was in a dreadful short story written in 1977. Sleeplessness was a spontaneous genetic mutation, and the characters were isolated mountaineers. The story was rejected by every editor in the business (Robert Silverberg, who changed editorial positions while I was cycling through the available markets, rejected it twice). Even I, fledgling writer with no ability to objectively evaluate my own stuff, could see that this story was not going to sell. I retired the manuscript.

Five years later I tried again. This time sleeplessness was a deliberate genetic mutation, created by a rogue mad scientist-type who eventually kills himself. Melodrama and nihilism. Again everybody rejected the story.

By 1990 I was ready to try a third time; envy was still operating strongly. But this time, my circumstances had changed. I had just become a full-time writer. My children were adolescents, and adolescent characters were much on my mind. And I was finally interested in exploring how science actually works (no more rogue mad scientists working in their basements).

The result was the novella version of Beggars in Spain, which won both the Nebula and the Hugo Awards. But I was nagged by the feeling that Leisha’s story had only begun. I wanted to explore the long-range economic effects of creating a favored class of people in a United States becoming increasingly polarized between rich and poor. I also wanted to work out my reactions to other writers’ philosophies: to Ayn Rand’s belief that no human being owes anything to any other except what is agreed to in a voluntary contract. To Ursula Le Guin’s belief, expressed in the wonderful novel The Dispossessed, that humankind could live without government if it lived without personal property. I didn’t believe Rand or Le Guin, but what did I believe? Like many greater authors, I wrote to find out.

In Beggars, sleeplessness is the result of altering a few genes in vitro. We still cannot do this reliably, but since 1990 we have moved a lot closer. Genetic engineering is becoming a reality, one that many people are not ready to acknowledge, let alone allow. But you cannot put the genie back in the bottle. We know how to manipulate the human genome and so, inevitably, we will. The two sequels to Beggars in Spain, Beggars and Choosers and Beggars Ride, explore that issue in as much detail as I could invent. Even so, I didn’t come close to covering the excitement, the changes, the shock, and the controversy that genetic engineering will bring in the coming decades. I just wish that I could stick around for a hundred years or so to see it—and to write about it.

Another cause for envy. Some things just never change.

Nancy Kress

February 15, 2004

BOOK I: Leisha


“With energy and sleepless vigilance go forward and give us victories.”

—ABRAHAM LINCOLN, to Major General Joseph Hooker, 1863


They sat stiffly on his antique Eames chairs, two people who didn’t want to be here, or one person who didn’t want to and one who resented the other’s reluctance. Dr. Ong had seen this before. Within two minutes he was sure: the woman was the silently furious resister. She would lose. The man would pay for it later, in little ways, for a long time.

“I presume you’ve performed the necessary credit checks already,” Roger Camden said pleasantly, “so let’s get right on to details, shall we, Doctor?”

“Certainly,” Ong said. “Why don’t we start by your telling me all the genetic modifications you’re interested in for the baby.”

The woman shifted suddenly on her chair. She was in her late twenties—clearly a second wife—but already had a faded look, as if keeping up with Roger Camden was wearing her out. Ong could easily believe that. Mrs. Camden’s hair was brown, her eyes were brown, her skin had a brown tinge that might have been pretty if her cheeks had had any color. She wore a brown coat, neither fashionable nor cheap, and shoes that looked vaguely orthopedic. Ong glanced at his records for her name: Elizabeth. He would bet people forgot it often.

Next to her, Roger Camden radiated nervous vitality, a man in late middle age whose bullet-shaped head did not match his careful haircut and Italian-silk business suit. Ong did not need to consult his file to recall anything about Camden. A caricature of the bullet-shaped head had been the leading graphic for yesterday’s online edition of the Wall Street Journal: Camden had led a major coup in cross-border data-atoll investment. Ong was not sure what cross-border data-atoll investment was.

“A girl,” Elizabeth Camden said. Ong hadn’t expected her to speak first. Her voice was another surprise: upper-class British. “Blonde. Green eyes. Tall. Slender.”

Ong smiled. “Appearance factors are the easiest to achieve, as I’m sure you already know. But all we can do about slenderness is give her a genetic disposition in that direction. How you feed the child will naturally—”

“Yes, yes,” Roger Camden said, “that’s obvious. Now: intelligence. High intelligence. And a sense of daring.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Camden, personality factors are not yet understood well enough to allow genet—”

“Just testing,” Camden said, with a smile that Ong thought was probably supposed to be lighthearted.

Elizabeth Camden said, “Musical ability.”

“Again, Mrs. Camden, a disposition to be musical is all we can guarantee.”

“Good enough,” Camden said. “The full array of corrections for any potential gene-linked health problem, of course.”

“Of course,” Dr. Ong said. Neither client spoke. So far theirs was a fairly modest list, given Camden’s money; most clients had to be argued out of contradictory genetic tendencies, alteration overload, or unrealistic expectations. Ong waited. Tension prickled in the room like heat.

“And,” Camden said, “no need to sleep.”

Elizabeth Camden jerked her head sideways to look out the window.

Ong picked up a paper magnet from his desk. He made his voice pleasant. “May I ask how you learned whether that genetic-modification program exists?”

Camden grinned. “You’re not denying it exists. I give you full credit for that, Doctor.”

Ong held his temper. “May I ask how you learned whether the program exists?”

Camden reached into an inner pocket of his suit. The silk crinkled and pulled; body and suit came from different classes. Camden was, Ong remembered, a Yagaiist, a personal friend of Kenzo Yagai himself. Camden handed Ong hard copy: program specifications.

“Don’t bother hunting down the security leak in your data banks, Doctor. You won’t find it. But if it’s any consolation, neither will anybody else. Now.” He leaned forward suddenly. His tone changed. “I know that you’ve created twenty children who don’t need to sleep at all, that so far nineteen are healthy, intelligent, and psychologically normal. In fact, they’re better than normal; they’re all unusually precocious. The oldest is already four years old and can read in two languages. I know you’re thinking of offering this genetic modification on the open market in a few years. All I want is a chance to buy it for my daughter now. At whatever price you name.”

Ong stood. “I can’t possibly discuss this with you unilaterally, Mr. Camden. Neither the theft of our data—”

“Which wasn’t a theft—your system developed a spontaneous bubble regurgitation into a public gate. You’d have a hell of a time proving otherwise—”

“—nor the offer to purchase this particular genetic modification lie in my sole area of authority. Both have to be discussed with the Institute’s board of directors.”

“By all means, by all means. When can I talk to them, too?”


Camden, still seated, looked up at him. It occurred to Ong that there were few men who could look so confident eighteen inches below eye level. “Certainly. I’d like the chance to present my offer to whoever has the actual authority to a ...