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Authors: Nancy Kress

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Beggars in Spain

BOOK: Beggars in Spain
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Beggars in Spain
Nancy Kress


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
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, re
jected 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
I believe? Like many greater authors, I wrote to find out.

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
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 ge
netic 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



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

, 1863


hey 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.
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
. 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—”

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 accept it. That’s only good business.”

“This isn’t solely a business transaction, Mr. Camden.”

“It isn’t solely pure scientific research, either,” Camden retorted.

“You’re a for-profit corporation here.
certain tax breaks available only to firms meeting certain fair-practice laws.”

For a minute Ong couldn’t think what Camden meant. “Fair-practice laws…”

“…are designed to protect minorities who are suppliers. I know it hasn’t ever been tested in the case of customers, except for redlining in Y-energy installations. But it could be tested, Dr. Ong. Minorities are entitled to the same product offerings as nonminorities. I know the Institute would not welcome a court case, Doctor. None of your twenty genetic beta-test families is either Black or Jewish.”

“A court…but you’re not Black

“I’m a different minority. Polish-American. The name was Kaminsky.” Camden finally stood. And smiled warmly. “Look, it is preposterous. You know that, and I know that, and we both know what a grand time journalists would have with it anyway. And you know that I don’t want to sue you with a preposterous case just to use the threat of premature and adverse publicity to get what I want. I don’t want to make threats at all, believe me I don’t. I just want this marvelous advancement you’ve come up with for my daughter.” His face changed, to an expression Ong wouldn’t have believed possible on those particular features: wistfulness. “Doctor, do you know how much more I could have accomplished if I hadn’t had to
all my life?”

Elizabeth Camden said harshly, “You hardly sleep now.”

Camden looked down at her as if he had forgotten she was there. “Well, no, my dear, not now. But when I was young…college, I might have been able to finish college and still support…Well. None of that matters now. What matters, Doctor, is that you and I and your board come to an agreement.”

“Mr. Camden, please leave my office now.”

“You mean before you lose your temper at my presumptuousness? You wouldn’t be the first. I’ll expect to have a meeting set up by the end of next week, whenever and wherever you say, of course. Just let my personal secretary, Diane Clavers, know the details. Anytime that’s best for you.”

Ong did not accompany them to the door. Pressure throbbed behind his temples. In the doorway Elizabeth Camden turned. “What happened to the twentieth one?”


“The twentieth baby. My husband said nineteen of them are healthy and normal. What happened to the twentieth?”

The pressure grew stronger, hotter. Ong knew that he should not answer; that Camden probably already knew the answer even if his wife didn’t; that he, Ong, was going to answer anyway; that he would regret the lack of self-control, bitterly, later.

“The twentieth baby is dead. His parents turned out to be unstable. They separated during the pregnancy, and his mother could not bear the twenty-four-hour crying of a baby who never sleeps.”

Elizabeth Camden’s eyes widened. “She killed it?”

“By mistake,” Camden said shortly. “Shook the little thing too hard.” He frowned at Ong. “Nurses, Doctor. In shifts. You should have picked only parents wealthy enough to afford nurses in shifts.”

“That’s horrible!” Mrs. Camden burst out, and Ong could not tell if she meant the child’s death, the lack of nurses, or the Institute’s carelessness. Ong closed his eyes.

When they had gone, he took ten milligrams of cyclobenzaprine-III. For his back—it was solely for his back. The old injury was hurting again. Afterward he stood for a long time at the window, still holding the paper magnet, feeling the pressure recede from his temples, feeling himself calm down. Below him Lake Michigan lapped peacefully at the shore; the police had driven away the homeless in another raid just last night, and they hadn’t yet had time to return. Only their debris remained, thrown into the bushes of the lakeshore park: tattered blankets, newspapers, plastic bags like pathetic trampled standards. It was illegal to sleep in the park, illegal to enter it without a resident’s permit, illegal to be homeless and without a residence. As Ong watched, uniformed park attendants began methodically spearing newspapers and shoving them into clean self-propelled receptacles.

Ong picked up the phone to call the chairman of Biotech Institute’s board of directors.


Four men and three women sat around the polished mahogany table of the conference room.
Doctor, lawyer, Indian chief,
thought Susan Melling, looking from Ong to Sullivan to Camden. She smiled. Ong caught the smile and looked frosty. Pompous ass. Judy Sullivan, the Institute lawyer, turned to speak in a low voice to Camden’s lawyer, a thin nervous man with the look of being owned. The owner, Roger Camden, the Indian chief himself, was the happiest-looking person in the room. The lethal little man—what did it take to become that rich, starting from nothing? She, Susan, would certainly never know—radiated excitement. He beamed, he glowed, so unlike the usual parents-to-be that Susan was intrigued. Usually the prospective daddies and mommies—especially the daddies—sat there looking as if they were at a corporate merger. Camden looked as if he were at a birthday party.

Which, of course, he was. Susan grinned at him, and was pleased when he grinned back. Wolfish, but with a sort of delight that could only be called innocent—what would he be like in bed? Ong frowned majestically and rose to speak.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I think we’re ready to start. Perhaps introductions are in order. Mr. Roger Camden, Mrs. Camden, are of course our clients. Mr. John Jaworski, Mr. Camden’s lawyer. Mr. Camden, this is Judith Sullivan, the Institute’s head of Legal; Samuel Krenshaw, representing Institute Director Dr. Brad Marsteiner, who unfortunately couldn’t be here today; and Dr. Susan Melling, who developed the genetic modification affecting sleep. A few legal points of interest to both parties—”

“Forget the contracts for a minute,” Camden interrupted. “Let’s talk about the sleep thing. I’d like to ask a few questions.”

Susan said, “What would you like to know?” Camden’s eyes were very blue in his blunt-featured face; he wasn’t what she had expected. Mrs. Camden, who apparently lacked both a first name and a lawyer,
since Jaworski had been introduced as her husband’s but not hers, looked either sullen or scared, it was difficult to tell which.

Ong said sourly, “Then perhaps we should start with a short presentation by Dr. Melling.”

Susan would have preferred a Q&A, to see what Camden would ask. But she had annoyed Ong enough for one session. Obediently she rose.

“Let me start with a brief description of sleep. Researchers have known for a long time that there are actually three kinds of sleep. One is ‘slow-wave sleep,’ characterized on an EEG by delta waves. One is ‘rapid-eye-movement sleep,’ or REM sleep, which is much lighter sleep and contains most dreaming. Together these two make up ‘core sleep.’ The third type of sleep is ‘optional sleep,’ so-called because people seem to get along without it with no ill effects, and some short sleepers don’t do it at all, sleeping naturally only three or four hours a night.”

“That’s me,” Camden said. “I trained myself into it. Couldn’t everybody do that?”

Apparently they were going to have a Q&A after all. “No. The actual sleep mechanism has some flexibility, but not the same amount for every person. The raphe nuclei on the brain stem—”

Ong said, “I don’t think we need that level of detail, Susan. Let’s stick to basics.”

Camden said, “The raphe nuclei regulate the balance among neurotransmitters and peptides that leads to a pressure to sleep, don’t they?”

Susan couldn’t help it; she grinned. Camden, the laser-sharp ruthless financier, sat trying to look solemn, a third-grader waiting to have his homework praised. Ong looked sour. Mrs. Camden looked away, out the window.

“Yes, that’s correct, Mr. Camden. You’ve done your research.”

Camden said, “This is my
” and Susan caught her breath. When was the last time she had heard that note of reverence in anyone’s voice? But no one in the room seemed to notice.

“Well, then,” Susan said, “you already know that the reason people sleep is because a pressure to sleep builds up in the brain. Over the past twenty years, research has determined that’s the
reason. Neither slow-wave sleep nor REM sleep serve functions that can’t be carried on while the body and brain are awake. A lot goes on during sleep, but it can go on during wakefulness just as well, if other hormonal adjustments are made.

“Sleep served an important evolutionary function. Once Clem Pre-Mammal was done filling his stomach and squirting his sperm around, sleep kept him immobile and away from predators. Sleep was an aid to survival. But now it’s a left-over mechanism, a vestige like the appendix. It switches on every night, but the need is gone. So we turn off the switch at its source, in the genes.”

Ong winced. He hated it when she oversimplified like that. Or maybe it was the lightheartedness he hated. If Marsteiner were making this presentation, there’d be no Clem Pre-Mammal.

BOOK: Beggars in Spain
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