“Beggars in Spain” by Nancy Kress

posted on 2011-02-06 by Kalina Palczewska


     Many of us wish we could get by with less sleep. Beggars in Spain extrapolates that wish into a future where some people need no sleep at all. Nancy Kress, an award-winning author of novels, short stories, and columns on writing, has created another thoughtful but dramatic statement on social issues.


Leisha Camden was genetically modified at birth to require no sleep, and her normal twin Alice is the control. Problems and envy between the sisters mirror those in the larger world, as society struggles to adjust to a growing pool of people who not only have 30 percent more time to work and study than normal humans, but are also highly intelligent and in perfect health.

The Sleepless gradually outgrow their welcome on Earth, and their children escape to an orbiting space station to set up their own society. But Leisha and a few others remain behind, preaching acceptance for all humans, Sleepless and Sleeper alike. With the conspiracy and revenge that unwinds, the world needs a little preaching on tolerance

What follows is a novel of discovery, for Leisha and the others as they attempt to make a place for themselves. Leisha refuses to believe the other Sleepless in their belief that they will be rejected by the rest of society. They eventually form a community called Sanctuary, and use their superior intellect to assure their safety, both financially and defensively. Leisha remains outside Sanctuary, and becomes rejected by both Sleepers and Sleepless. Over the next one hundred years of the story, the two societies will work against each other, with the Sleepers trying to find their place in the world.


While the book is about the two groups, Leisha is the focal point. Her refusal to shut herself off from the rest of the world lets her see both sides of the debate. She feels, perhaps naively, that both sides can live together. This debate is also played out with her twin sister, Alice, with whom she has a changing and growing relationship throughout the book. Alice, somewhat rightfully, despises Leisha, though eventually the two sisters’ relationship grows more positive. Kress’s portrayal of the two sisters, as well as all of the characters, rings very true. The character development is one of the best things about the book, with the author really having the talent for making them seem alive.

The book also does a really good job of describing the two societies, and the prejudices they each bring about. In an especially interesting twist, the Sleepers eventually genetically manipulate their offspring, creating an even more intelligent race, a race that begins to suspect they might be subject to some sort of oppression. Throughout the book the plot developments grow out of these conflicts, and seem intelligent, rather than forced.


Beggars In Spain is one of the best fantasy books I’ve read in some time. The characters are intelligent, the plot interesting, and the writing style is very compelling. The idea of going through life without sleep is an interesting one, and Kress does an excellent job of describing what effects this would have on our planet. If you are a fan of intelligent SF, you should read this book.

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