The story begins with a pair of prospective parents visiting a geneticist. The geneticist asks them what traits they want their yet-to-be-conceived child to possess. In addition to being free from genes associated with cancer, obesity and the like, they can choose hair color—blonde in this instance—and certain facial features.
The story in question isn’t the 1997 film “Gattaca,” but, instead, “Beggars in Spain,” the 1991 Hugo-and Nebula-award winning novella (eventually expanded into a full novel) by Nancy Kress.
“Beggars in Spain” has, in fact, nothing to do with Spain, and its characters use the word “beggar” in a way that goes beyond our customary use of the word: “a person, typically a homeless one, who lives by asking for money or food.”
What’s more, Kress, unlike Andrew Niccol in “Gattaca,” has very little to say, good or bad, about the morality of genetic manipulation and made-to-order progeny. Her story takes the technology and the practices that flow from it as a given. It’s simply part of the setting for the story she wants to tell.
That story, “Beggars in Spain,” is Kress’ attempt to “work out [her] reaction” to two very different philosophies: “Ayn Rand’s belief that no human being owes anything to any other except what is agreed to in a voluntary contract” and “Ursula Le Guin’s belief . . . that humankind could live without government if it lived without personal property.”
I’m getting ahead of myself, so let’s go back to the geneticist’s office. In addition to the above-mentioned enhancements— “genemods” as the book calls them—the prospective parents, Roger and Elizabeth Camden, have another, unpublicized, option: Their daughter can be born without the need to sleep.
This may sound appalling to you but, as depicted in the book, it has many advantages. Besides the obvious increase in productivity, eliminating the need for sleep makes the “sleepless,” as they are called, more intelligent. In fact, it turns them into prodigies. And it even makes them, if not exactly happy, less prone to depression and more even-tempered. (It also leaves them unable to appreciate art, something Kress mentions only in passing.)
What follows is the history of an increasingly dystopic 21st-century United States divided along two different but overlapping axes: the first is between the tiny sleepless minority and the “sleeper” majority which views the sleepless with a mixture of fear, envy and what Freud called ressentiment. The second is between what in current political parlance might be called the “makers” and “takers,” or as the book calls them, “beggars.”
The former, almost without exception, subscribe to a thinly disguised version of Objectivism dubbed “Yagaiism.” The latter over time demand more and more in the way of benefits in exchange for maintaining social peace.
Since the sleepless minority almost without exception are also “makers,” as well as being the object of fear and hatred, they literally as well as figuratively withdraw from the larger society and create one of their own.
The separation of the various groups leads to a hardening of their positions to the point of caricature. The sleepless utopia, called “Sanctuary,” combines an extreme form of ethnocentrism with a social ethic whose primary tenet is that “no one has the right to make claims on the strong and productive because he is weak and useless.”
The “beggars,” for their part, become so dependent on the dole that they stop working, calling themselves “livers” —not as in the body part but as in “living your life free of responsibility.”
As you no doubt guessed, eventually the two reductio ad absurdum positions come into irreconcilable conflict. The ending is so-so, both in story-telling terms and especially as an attempt to make sense of the diametrically opposed worldviews Kress is trying to make sense of.
As the protagonist, Leisha Camden, one of the few sleepless who didn’t embrace the Sanctuary ethos of separation (although she remains a “Yagaiist” to the end) puts it, “it’s not possible to have both equality, which is just another name for what you call community solidarity, and individual excellence. . . . [You cannot create] a community that [puts] just as much value on its own solidarity—the ‘equality’ of those who were included as members—as on those members’ individual achievements.”
She, and presumably Kress, are wrong. The “trick” lies in getting the basis for solidarity right.
For starters, the choices are not limited to the pathological selfishness of Objectivism and a caricatured version of solidarity that leaves the “weak and useless” free from all responsibility, either for themselves or towards others. If Kress is aware of the work of someone like John Rawls, or Immanuel Kant for that matter, you can’t tell from reading “Beggars in Spain.”
While Rawls’s “veil of ignorance” has its fair share (pun intended) of critics, it reminds us a very important fact: a great deal of our success (or failure) is due to circumstances beyond our control. The most obvious, as well as most apposite in this instance, example is what Warren Buffett has called winning the “ovarian lottery.” While having the “right” parents does not guarantee being one of the “strong and productive,” it does provide you with a significant leg-up on the competition.
This was certainly true of the sleepless in Kress’s novel: Their advantages were the results of decisions their parents made before they were even conceived. The same is true of you. If you are reading this, you likely live in North America, which gives you an enormous advantage over the vast majority in the rest of the world who would gladly trade places with you, an advantage bestowed upon you by your ancestors.
(I think about this almost every time I see someone maintaining the grounds in my subdivision. When my great-great-grandparents decided to leave Spain in the latter part of the 19th century, they didn’t emigrate to Argentina, Chile, or Cuba as most of their neighbors did. Instead, they chose Puerto Rico. A decade or so later, the Maine sank, the Rough Riders charged up San Juan Hill and, before you can say “Insular Cases,” my great-grandparents went from being Spanish subjects to being American citizens. This led to my parents meeting and getting married in New York and my being born with rights, privileges, and other advantages most of the Spanish-speaking, and non-Spanish-speaking, world can only dream about.)
While this perspective can produce gratitude and, perhaps, humility, it still doesn’t resolve Kress’s conundrum. “There but for the grace of God go I” can spur the occasional act of charity but it cannot produce, or at least has not, produced a sense of solidarity. Nor does it answer the question: why strive for excellence when you are already set for life?
That combination requires a particular anthropology: specifically, a Christian one.
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