**spoiler alert** I liked The Ringworld Engineers more than I did Ringworld, in the sense that I enjoyed reading it more. Yet it is neither better nor**spoiler alert** I liked The Ringworld Engineers more than I did Ringworld, in the sense that I enjoyed reading it more. Yet it is neither better nor worse than its predecessor. Although full of many more interesting conundrums than the first book, The Ringworld Engineers still suffers, notably in its treatment of female characters and sex. And after a careful unveiling of mystery after mystery leading up to a climax with such great potential, the ending is disappointing and little disheartening.
This book is all about saving the Ringworld instead of escaping it (though that's still on the agenda too). Louis Wu and Speaker-to-Animals, now called Chmeee because his spoils from Ringworld earned him a name, once again return to the Ringworld with Pierson's puppeteer. This time, however, they are kidnapped. The Hindmost, formerly a puppeteer leader and also Nessus' mate, is mounting a somewhat unauthorized expedition to the Ringworld. It wants to bring those magical matter transmutation devices Louis Wu speculated about in the first book back to the puppeteers so it can get back in power. The only problems? Well, the transmutation devices don't actually exist. Oh, and the Ringworld is drifting toward a collision with the sun. Good times.
As in the first book, I was not that interested in learning who built the Ringworld so much as watching the consequences of its abandonment unfold for the inhabitants of the structure. Niven adequately delivers on both, in this case, interweaving Louis' deductions about the structure's origins with his encounters with a selection of Ringworld natives. We get to see farmers and grazers, sea people, ghouls, vampires, and of course, the City Builders. The format is almost episodic, each chapter touching briefly on the events of the last but ensconcing Louis firmly in its own narrative. This structure only begins to falter as Louis flees back to the Needle from the city library with two City Builders tagging along. The story picks up the pace, quickly reunited Louis with Chmeee so that they can all go find the Repair Centre and save the Ringworld.
I like the pacing, and the intensity, and the sense of delayed urgency. They have a little more than a year to save the Ringworld, which seems like a lot of time, but they don't actually know where the Repair Centre is. Also, someone has organized teams to replace the attitude jets on the Ringworld rim, which were once enough to keep the Sun in the centre of the Ringworld's orbit. So there is a mysterious third party lurking about the Ringworld, and we don't know if it will embrace the assistance of Louis, Hindmost, and Chmeee.
The new Louis Wu, an addict of electrical current stimulation to the brain, is a much better character than the protagonist of the first book. He's more vulnerable, and that makes it easier to sympathize with him and easier to like him. I was cheering for him as he struggled to quit the droud so he could get out from beneath the thumb of the Hindmost. Louis' recovery is a little quick, but Niven doesn't sell short the struggle, as he makes it clear that Louis is still often tempted by his desire to feel the current. Louis' recovery is a great source of character development. As his head becomes clearer, so too do his theories about the Ringworld's origins, as well as theories about how to save it.
I could have done without the obsession over sex.
On the Ringworld, apparently it's customary to seal bargains with rishathra, "sex outside one's own species." Mmhmm. Now, Niven goes to great lengths to justify both it and Louis engaging in it. Every. Single. Time.
The first time it was actually rather hilarious. Louis saves a bunch of peaceful red-skinned farmers from some green-skinned giant warriors who want to graze all their grass. He does it by posing as a god, and the green-skinned warrior leader wants to seal their new bargain with rishathra, like you do. And Louis is starting to get exasperated, because he's just thought of a plan to save the day but is stymied, for a moment, by this carnal formality. So he goes to great lengths to preserve the charade, complete the rishathra, and save the day.
Louis' libido does not stop there, and he happily acquiesces to the practice elsewhere along the Ringworld. At one point, he is ready and willing for some rishathra, but he's stuck aboard Needle with two of the City Builders. One of them is male, and the other, Harkabeeparolyn, despises rishathra. Louis muses that if this were any other place, he would just "find himself another woman," but since there aren't any others on board, he has to make do with work and exercise—except, wait a minute, Harkabeeparolyn changes her mind! Yes indeed, because when the City Builders have sex, they're guaranteed to conceive, and apparently she is in heat. So, not wanting to get pregnant, she finally takes Louis up on his oft-repeated offer. Hopefully this demonstrates what I mean when I say Niven makes elaborate justifications for the sex and rishathra in this book.
The Ringworld Engineers in general emphasized an underlying attitude toward sex and women that makes me rather uncomfortable. Kzinti females are non-sentient. The females of the green giants, with whom Louis gets to perform rishathra, are "docile" in bed and don't orgasm. Harkabeeparolyn doesn't want to perform rishathra but changes her mind, because apparently she can't resist sex but doesn't want to get pregnant. Oh, and just because the Hindmost is Nessus' mate, don't get your hopes up that it's female. The puppeteers have two kinds of male. They both implant DNA in a host female: one the sperm, the other the eggs. As the Hindmost explains: "The female contributes none. In fact, females mate among themselves in another way to make more females. They are not properly of our species…." I don't want to draw any erroneous conclusions about Niven's proclivities from this, but I feel like we are skirting much too close to someone's fantasy here, where the women are willing, able, and the man's always in charge. In the Ringworld books, women are Other, different sometimes to the point of belonging to a different species.
While enough to make me uncomfortable, sex and the portrayal of women doesn't have a large bearing on the main plot, which proceeds without many problems until the end of the book. Then Louis is faced with a moral dilemma: can he kill 5 per cent of the Ringworld's inhabitants in order to save the rest? (Keep in mind here that "5 per cent" means 1.5 trillion.)
The answer turns out to be "yes, he can." And he does. And that is so disappointing. I like my science fiction to be uplifting and inspiring. I want my heroes to find, against all odds, that third option that saves them from committing one horrific deed in order to prevent an even larger one. It's all well and good to talk about "the needs of the many" outweighing "the needs of the few," but that kind of philosophy is hard to swallow at this scale. We are talking about killing more people than, in all likelihood, the cumulative population of Earth over all of human history. Can you imagine if someone arrived at Earth and said, "Sorry folks, but in order to save the rest of the galaxy, we have to vaporize you and your planet. For the greater good."
The problem is entirely one of scale. We run into this quite a bit in science fiction: the universe is just so vast that thinking on a cosmic level is almost impossible. Discussing events on the order of billions of years is difficult when we aren't sure where we will be next year, much less next century. Deciding the fates of trillions is difficult when it is hard to conceive that by the end of this year there might be 7 billion people on our planet. So it might seem like sacrificing one life to save a hundred makes sense (and it does, if the hero is the one who elects to make the sacrifice). Killing one innocent person, though? Or ten? Or a million? We can draw a line, but it is only an arbitrary one.
And because this is fiction, Niven could have found another way if he had really wanted. He had already created the massive structure of the Ringworld, turned solar flares into meteor defenses, and explained who originally built the Ringworld. But he didn't give Louis Wu a third option; he forced Louis to save the Ringworld by murdering 1.5 trillion people. So I have to wonder what utilitarian, philosophical point Niven is trying to make. And I don't like it.
As a story, The Ringworld Engineers is good. It has a solid set of mysteries and conflicts, a great climax, and some kind of resolution, even if I didn't like it. I liked the characterization, aside from the uncomfortable sex subtext, better than in Ringworld. The more I read of Niven, however, the less he impresses me. Big concepts and big ideas are important, to science fiction as much as any other genre. While Niven excels at these, however, he does not always succeed at the other, just as crucial aspects of storytelling.
The Ringworld is a fabulous concept and, yes, simply amazing. I could easily see it on an episode of Megaworld ("It's 997,000 miles in diameter, and it's composed mainly out of an inscrutable metal called 'scrith'…"). In the end though, it is just a setting, and that is not where I look for satisfaction in my storytelling. I look to the characters, to my heroes. I look for those, "Hell yeah!" moments where I can shout with pride because my protagonist has risen from the depths of a tragedy and managed to win. I can't do that with The Ringworld Engineers; heroism, in this book, is broken.
Sometimes having a good idea just isn’t enough. This might hurt, but it’s the truth. For whatever reason, sometimes writers have amazing ideas that doSometimes having a good idea just isn’t enough. This might hurt, but it’s the truth. For whatever reason, sometimes writers have amazing ideas that don’t pan out. And when those ideas stall mid-story, they take the entire book down with them.
In Brains: A Zombie Memoir, Jack Barnes is an English professor who gets bitten during the zombie apocalypse. After transforming, he discovers that he can still think and still feels like himself—aside from a craving for brains and human flesh. Also, he can still write (not too shabby for a decaying corpse), though he can’t speak. So Jack travels across the United States, gradually finding other “smart zombies” like himself, looking for the scientist who unwittingly unleashed the zombie virus on the world.
When I put it that way, Brains sounds downright intriguing. Who doesn’t want to hear about the zombie apocalypse from the zombie’s perspective? Much to my disappointment, Brains isn’t just bad; it’s terrible. It falls flat in almost every respect: characterization, plotting, and humour are all gruesomely murdered and resurrected as zombie versions of themselves. It’s been a while since I read a book as bad as this. I considered not finishing it, but at only 168 pages, I decided to stick it out until the bitter end.
The length alone is an early indication that the Robin Becker lacks enough story for a good story. After all, her premise is sound and exciting. But after Jack has been transformed and starts wandering across the country, Brains suddenly loses all sense of direction or even progress. So what that he’s going to find Howard Stein? So what that they’ve made it to Chicago? The book drags on and on, describing Jack’s newly found affinity for brains and how he’s drooling over Eve, the hot-but-stupid zombie, and I’m just waiting for something really interesting to happen or for real conflict to break out. Finally, with the pages rapidly running out, we reach a climax of sorts as Jack confronts his creator. But it’s actually very anticlimactic, because the end is not difficult to predict. To Becker’s credit, she tries to include revelations and ruminations that are deep and meaningful … but that doesn’t change the fact that I don’t really care whether Jack or his new zombie-friends survive.
I don’t read (or watch) much zombie fiction. Like the larger horror genre in general, it is not my cup of tea. I don’t find zombies very interesting as monsters. Whether they are the traditional shamblers or the new-school runners, zombies don’t impress me. Zombie stories tend to deliver two interconnected moral dilemmas: the cost of survival and the fate of a main character who has been bitten. It’s certainly possible to write excellent, creative zombie stories—still, most of the zombie stories I like tend to be the ones that parody or deconstruct the genre instead of playing it straight: Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland (although it played the genre straight to some extent) … Fido was really weird but had its moments. I enjoyed Feed and found it problematic in equal doses. (I notice now that I have a similar genre-generalizing paragraph in that review. Good to know I’m being consistent in my opinion of zombie fiction!) So a zombie book has to work harder to impress me, perhaps, than someone who is more invested and more forgiving of this genre. But Brains hardly seems to work at all.
This is mostly Jack’s fault. He’s an asshole, and he admits it. He claims dying has changed him for the better, but I disagree. I don’t think he’s any closer to having a soul now (if souls existed) or being a better person as a zombie: he goes around eating brains, biting people to turn them into zombies at a whim, and dropping pop culture references in an attempt to sound erudite and hip at the same time. His diction, I gather, is supposed to have a similar effect, and I suppose I can’t fault Becker for her ability to establish a voice for Jack. It’s just not a voice I like very much, and regardless of Becker’s intentions in this matter, it adversely affected my enjoyment of the book. Frankly, I had no emotional investment in zombie Jack or his great plans for his smart-zombie gang. The only zombie I cared about was Guts, because Becker managed to make him cute and endearing, but even that was only a surface affection on my part.
It is possible that I could have found it in myself to overlook Jack’s unsympathetic nature if Brains had a more compelling plot. Without going into too much detail, however, nothing interesting happens here. Brains is just … boring. With no reason to care about the main character and little interest in the thin plot, I had a difficult time making it through this short book. That’s a shame. There’s a reason we describe books as page-turners or non-stop action thrill-rides; we yearn for books that draw us into a wider universe beyond the story on the pages and make us salivate for knowledge of that universe. Described in such a florid way, perhaps it sounds like a tall order for a book that might claim to be some “light zombie fun”. I don’t think it is, which is why I’m being so hard on this book. Not only is Brains pointless, but it could be much better. I really like the main idea and wish it were better executed.
I’m not so convinced this is all Brains’ fault. The blurbs on the back of this book, which have no doubt been carefully selected to give an impression of agreement, all praise it along the same line. Using adjectives like “smart”, “snarky”, “witty”, and “clever”, these reviewers cast Brains as a “smart” book that taps into popular culture. This idea, that pop culture allusions and a sarcastic narrator are sufficient ingredients for a “smart” book, seems to be a literary myth of sorts. It conflates style with substance and rewards an empty feeling of currency over true depth and emotional impact. That’s not to say that all books that feel current or have lots of pop culture allusions are bad—but these alone do not a good story make. So Brains might be a “smart” book, but it’s a stupid story. If your decaying corpse is lusting after some ripe zombie fiction, look elsewhere—this feast is far from fresh.
Damn you, Ursula K. Le Guin, for managing to move me even when I think your book sucks.
Many of the poor reviews on Goodreads here can be summed up likDamn you, Ursula K. Le Guin, for managing to move me even when I think your book sucks.
Many of the poor reviews on Goodreads here can be summed up like so: "Le Guin is a great writer, but this isn't her best." Both of these statements are true. However, I'm not willing to leave it at that. I refuse to accept that a writer of such skill as Le Guin can have an "off" novel, that she somehow misses her mark here. Other writers might have books like that, but not Le Guin. So while it is true that I think this is far from Le Guin's best work, and it is true that I did not enjoy The Beginning Place as much as I had hoped, considering its author, there is definitely something going on here.
Let's start with the two main characters. We first meet Hugh, self-described as "fat" and otherwise unhappy in his dead-end job as a checker at a supermarket. (I'm not sure if the term has just not aged well in the thirty years since this book was published, but I at first didn't understand what a "checker" was. I thought it meant he was a "price checker," but from Le Guin's descriptions, it sounds more like he was the cashier. And I kept picturing him using terminals or, as a price checker, a little infrared scanning device. Bad, anachronistic reader!) Hugh's secret ambition is to go to night school so he can become a librarian. His obstacle is his unhealthy relationship with his mother, who is too dependent on him and far too controlling of his life. Hugh seems to have no real friends and no other solace—until he finds the Beginning Place, or whatever you want to call it.
Irena is a twenty-something girl with chips on her shoulders, because her stepdad is a lecherous, abusive husband and her mother is too "loyal" to him to get help. She's stuck in a terrible in-between where she wants to help her mom, but she can't bear the thought of going back to stay with them and be subjected to the leers—or worse—of the stepfather. She found the Beginning Place, and the world of Tembreabrezi, before Hugh. But it's Hugh that the inhabitants of this world (village?) want to go fight the monster.
Or something. I was never entirely clear on that part—or, I should say, Le Guin never fully explains the nature of the quest Hugh undertakes. The villagers are deliberately vague about the whole endeavour, although it seems like they don't expect Hugh and Irena to return. I was rather disappointed when the threat turned out to be physical (albeit with a side of psychological terror). I was hoping for a much more intellectual obstacle for Hugh to overcome; after all that dallying in the village, that was a very disappointing climax.
The Beginning Place begins somewhat strangely, in that I was not predisposed to feel much sympathy for Hugh. He seemed like a loser—and not the lovable kind. As the book progresses, it becomes apparent that he is a lovable loser—sort of—just as it becomes obvious that he and Irena are destined to hook up by the end. What remains to be seen, then, are the lessons each of them learn and the resolution Le Guin provides when it comes to their respective family troubles.
It is this part of The Beginning Place that most intrigues me. Le Guin does not spend much time exploring either of the worlds she depicts. This is perhaps a reflection that Hugh and Irena do not fully belong in either world—at least not until the ending. Compared to her other books, however, this makes for a very unusual experience. Even her prose style feels different, much less engaging and detailed than I would expect from her. Yet it is still noticeably Le Guinish. Even at its most descriptive, her prose is not straightforward, not meant to be too literal. As a work of magical realism, The Beginning Place speaks volumes with its juxtaposition of "real life" with the surreal Tembreabrezi.
Both Hugh and Irena need to do some growing up, and that's what the adventure in this story is about. Like a lot of escapist fantasy, Tembreabrezi and the woods that lead to it begin as a place of refuge, a sanctuary from the parts of their lives from which Hugh and Irena want to escape. Then it presents its own challenge, manifesting as a sort of quest that Hugh and Irena must complete to come of age.
And true to form, Le Guin does not deliver the expected epic quest and its equally epic resolution. Instead, Hugh and Irena succeed, but it is success tinged with a sense of regret and confusion. It is more about their journey home, and finding solace in each other rather than in their place or their time. Hugh and Irena finally forge what they have needed all along: a connection with someone else.
It sounds trite, and that may be true. The ending is predictable, but in a reassuring sort of way. From the beginning of The Beginning Place to the end, Le Guin seems to alternate between fulfilling our expectations and defying them. What does not work for me is the drabness of the worlds she describes. Neither our world nor Tembreabrezi ever feels very alive or interesting, and at the beginning Hugh is not a sympathetic character. Though this changes, it develops very slowly, and that makes The Beginning Place unappealing, especially at first.
So yes, this is not Le Guin at her best. She brings all of her skill as a writer and a storyteller, and it shows in the themes and the development of the characters. But the setting isn't quite there, and I couldn't get that off my mind no matter how much I tried. The Beginning Place never really began, for me, and that's why I can't say I liked it all that much.
I saw Dave Isay on The Colbert Report and decided to buy this book as a Mother's Day gift. The idea of StoryCorps itself appeals to me, so a book consI saw Dave Isay on The Colbert Report and decided to buy this book as a Mother's Day gift. The idea of StoryCorps itself appeals to me, so a book consisting of interviews about motherhood sounded interesting. I was not wrong.
The stories in Mom are moving in a way I suspect many people would dismiss as a case of reality being unrealistic, though I'm sure Isay chose these particular stories for their emotional impact. In other words, there's nothing dull about Mom. The people telling these stories talk very openly about memories of their mothers or their own experiences of being a mother; in so doing, they provide perspectives that most of us will never have. I certainly won't ever be a mother, and while I'm lucky enough to have a mother, I only have one, so my pool of memories is necessarily limited. Mom is storytelling at its most basic, the sharing of experiences that are uncommon yet knowable.
Most of us are aware of the significance of being a mother—we do have a day to celebrate it, after all—but few of us have the time or inclination to ponder truly the meaning of motherhood. Which is where books come into play. The stories here are varied enough that they don't give a single, overwhelming definition of motherhood. They allow you to judge, to form your own idea of what it means to be "mom." There are several similar stories, some from people who were adopted and found their biological mothers, others from women whose relationship with their mothers was different than their relationship with their daughters. The former belies the traditional "nuclear family" ideal that has been fracturing for decades, reminding us that whom we label family has more to do with blood or with birth. The latter again testifies to the diversity of opinions on parenting and motherhood. There is no one correct way to be "mom."
Not that I'm trying to make Mom sound like some sort of parenting tips magazine. It's not an instruction manual, but more like a serious and intimate form of YouTube. The stories here are powerful because they're genuine, and that makes them both enjoyable to read and thought-provoking. I'd recommend Mom as a gift to mothers, but it's not just for mothers. It's for everyone, because we all had, if not have, a mother somewhere....more
I don’t much like economics. I like Cory Doctorow’s metaphor here in For the Win of the economy like a train: most people have no idea where it’s goinI don’t much like economics. I like Cory Doctorow’s metaphor here in For the Win of the economy like a train: most people have no idea where it’s going, or whether the driver is even still alive; while economists speculate on all of this, some people pay attention to them while others just ignore them entirely and watch the scenery go by.
I don’t much like economics, but I guess I should admit that the economy is important. Similarly, I won’t accept the cop-out idea that it’s impossible to comprehend economics unless you’re some kind of genius. That’s why I love Doctorow’s didactic novels: he is so good at taking a subject he is clearly passionate about and breaking it down into easier-to-understand lessons. So, yes, For the Win has a lot of pointed lectures about economic theories, from investments and hedge funds to shortselling and market panic—but it’s all couched in examples from fictitious game economies. I love that.
The cast of this novel is also stunning. Doctorow assembles quite a diverse bunch: Chinese gold farmers and dissidents, Indonesian labour rights advocates, Indian gold farmer–busting gamers, etc. There are gamers and economists, concerned parents and bemused traditional union leaders. Most importantly, these characters don’t always get along. Mala and Yasmin’s opinions diverge in Dharavi, only for the two to be drawn back together after a dangerous confrontation. Even then, they don’t always see eye-to-eye. I like stories where the protagonists have this kind of low-level conflict—conflict not for drama’s sake, mind you, but in the service of acknowledging that it is seldom clear what the “right” thing to do is.
Most of the main characters change quite a bit. Doctorow allows some time to elapse between each major part of the novel. By skipping forward in this way, he can bring us to new and interesting impasses, whether it’s the rift between Mala and Yasmin or Wei-Dong’s crazy plan to smuggle himself into China. One notable impression this makes is how privileged I am, as a Western reader, compared to many of the characters in this book. There is a deceptive and dangerous idea that somehow technology, particularly the Internet, is somehow going to liberate people in developing nations from oppression and unjust labour and create a more equal society. That’s clearly not the case here: Mala and her army have access to the Internet, but it’s just another tool that her boss uses to keep her oppressed and dependent on him for income and protection.
On the flip side, Doctorow shows us how the Internet and related technologies can be forces for good, when used as one might use any other tool. The Webbly gold farmers take the very same economies that others use to oppress them and, by cornering the gold markets, take those economies hostage for their own ends. Doctorow distills the basic tenets of union and labour philosophy in a very simple way: one or two people standing up for themselves will end badly; nearly everyone standing up for each other makes a statement so loud the world can hear.
The resolution is somewhat unrealistic, perhaps, in its scope, although there are tinges of bittersweetness to it. It’s appropriate enough given the big, dramatic nature of the entire plot. And throughout the novel, Doctorow shows realistically enough the brutal ways in which those in power respond to people’s attempts to organize and unionize; he does not pull his punches there. He makes me feel such pitch-perfect pathos for these characters, both the ones who suffer and the ones who survive. It’s easy to get caught up in the rush of the moment and that feeling of power and triumph; he encourages you to get a piece of that elation. There’s so much more going on, though, and he captures that too.
For the Win has a great deal of nuance, then. It’s not light reading, in the sense that Doctorow does digress on many points economical. But he does this through examples in games and game economies. He takes the topical—but global—idea of games and how those make money for companies and marries it with the issue of cheap and abusive labour practices. The result is a sometimes bizarre but somewhat brilliant piece of contemporary science fiction, and I, for one, feel much improved and much entertained having read it.
I love to sleep. I prefer at least eight, preferably nine hours of sleep each night. Going to bed at midnight and waking up at nine in the morning isI love to sleep. I prefer at least eight, preferably nine hours of sleep each night. Going to bed at midnight and waking up at nine in the morning is a perk of my madcap, Bohemian university student lifestyle that I will have to abandon once I become a stern, starched-collar high school teacher. For now, however, I like my sleep, and I will defend to the death my right to snore it. But if I did not need to sleep—had, in fact, grown up without ever knowing sleep—would I miss it? How would I be different? What if I weren't alone?
Beggars in Spain has a simple premise—that certain children have been genetically-engineered so that they do not sleep—with enormous implications (such as the Sleepless not aging). Once again, Nancy Kress uses genetic engineering to explore what it means to be human and how our society treats those who are different. I recognize her familiar themes from Nothing Human and "Act One". Kress is an awesome author of serious gene-manipulation fiction, by which I mean she doesn't use genetic engineering just as a science-fiction plot device or a background phenomenon, as one might see in other books where other motifs are more important. Whether she is altering the entire human genome, as in Nothing Human, or tweaking just a single trait, as she did here and in "Act One," Kress considers the implications of her changes in how these altered humans think and behave. More importantly, she considers how the un-altered will react. And Kress is writing posthuman fiction set not in the far-off future but in the present and in the near-future; she is writing about what our lives might be like in a decade or three.
So why did I have so much trouble with Beggars in Spain? I was constantly aware of how far through the book I was, and I never had that urge to continue reading like I do with books that really grip me. To be fair, I think I had a similar reaction to Nothing Human. Kress' writing style and my reading habits do not exist in perfect harmony, and sometimes that happens, even with authors whose work I admire on an intellectual or literary level. There must be more to it than that. Otherwise, I would feel comfortable giving this book five stars.
Beggars in Spain has an excellent premise, but its plot is unsustainable. The tragedy is that the overall story makes a lot of sense, and it should work: the Sleepless outperform the Sleepers, who channel their fear of difference into hatred and bigotry. So far, so good: none of this requires suspension of disbelief, at all, because it's a true story that has been repeated far too often in our history. It's still happening today. Groups fear those who are different, and then the fear turns to hate, people get stupid, and individuals die. I don't begrudge Kress the parallels. Intention is one thing, however, and execution is quite another.
The first part of the book, essentially what got published as a novella (and won both the Hugo and Nebula for it!), is great. I have few complaints about it. The supporting characters are somewhat thin, and the family situation is somewhat clichéd. Aside from that, however, Kress nicely portrays an American society struggling to deal with the rising population of Sleepless among them. The nascent internal divisions among the network of Sleepless is intriguing, and Kress follows up on this in the rest of the book.
There are two problems with the rest of the book, and their names are Leisha Cambden and Jennifer Sharifi. Leisha is the main character, theoretically the protagonist, though she does not do much protagonizing. Although seeing the world through Leisha's Sleepless yet compassionate eyes is interesting, Leisha as a person is rather dull and credulous. She talks a lot about Yagaiism and contracts and eponymous Spanish beggars, and once in a while she kidnaps abused Sleepless children. Most of her actions, however, like the creation of the Susan Bell Foundation, take place offstage. Plenty of characters around Leisha—Richard, Alice, Jordan, Drew—are doing things; Leisha just seems to sit around lamenting the fact that people are short-sighted and judgemental. She's a bit of a downer.
Jennifer Sharifi, on the other hand, is much more interesting but, again, doesn't quite work as a character. One of the two characters who come as close to antagonists as this book has, Jennifer is an ultra-cool Sleepless who pursues rationality and pragmatism to the point of irrationality. She is convinced the only route for Sleepless survival is voluntary exile: first to an orbital habitat, then out into space completely. All her energy is directed toward these efforts, laying the groundwork for the secession of the Sleepless Sanctuary from the United States. She continues to tinker with the genes of Sanctuary's children, creating a new generation of "Supers," Sleepless whose neurological functions are hyper-accelerated—at the price of a loss of motor control that manifests as twitches and stuttering. Oh, and she stacks Sanctuary's ruling council with her own family members and viciously suppresses any dissent.
Jennifer is a caricature of an ultra-reactionary leader of the persecuted. She's too bad, closer to a moustached villain than a devious leader fighting for the survival of the Sleepless. There's never a question of whether she has crossed a line; she has crossed it, and for that she receives no sympathy for me. I don't view her as a credible threat or challenge, because the other characters will always have the moral high ground over her. If she had been more ambiguous, or at least more formidable, I might have enjoyed her role as an antagonist more.
The other antagonist comes rather late to the party. He frames Sleepless for attacks on Sleepers, including a Sleeper scientist who approaches Leisha to have develop a way of turning Sleepers into Sleepless. He's a much less important figure than Jennifer, of course, so accordingly he has less depth. Still, his involvement in the scientist's murder wasn't exactly my favourite revelation of the book. I don't really hold it against him, but he does highlight a vacancy in the roster: Leisha et al needed a true ally, a powerful Sleeper who nevertheless championed the cause of the Sleepless.
I quite liked the Supers, and Miri, and their struggle as a faction within the Sanctuary faction. The whole Other-within-the-Other motif is appealing, and Miri is one of the easiest characters with whom I could sympathize. Watching her struggle with her feelings for Tony, her own brother, and reconcile the knowledge that her mother could not look upon her with love, was close to heartbreaking. And of course, Miri and the Supers are exactly Jennifer's mistake: she tries to create an ultra-superhuman being, something beyond even her own generation of Sleepless, but she haughtily thinks she can somehow control them. While the Supers' sundering of their Sanctuary shackles was predictable, it was also the most entertaining and riveting part of the book.
Beggars in Spain isn't bad, but it is heavyhanded almost across the board: characters, philosophy, and plot could all have done with a much lighter touch. Just thinking of all the times the characters referred to "beggars" or "beggars in Spain," as if Kress was not confident we would make the connection between the philosophy and the book's title, makes me wince. I appreciate subtlety, and I notice its absence. While seldom enough to ruin a book for me—especially one as admittedly thoughtful and intriguing as this—it does detract from my enjoyment. Books are my drug of choice, and Beggars in Spain left me unsatisfied.