Beggars and Choosers (1994) by Nancy Kress

Beggars&Choosers1Techno skepticism in a dystopian world controlled by a few genetically-modified humans, the second of the Beggars trilogy brings to mind Philip Jose Farmer’s “Riders of the Purple Wage” (Dangerous Visions, 1967) where a society lives in trashy decadence on government-provided salaries upon the advent of fully-automated manufacturing and agricultural industries. Both stories share a crude, unenlightened vision of “The Welfare State,” but Kress breaks from Farmer’s negative characterizations of the lower classes by embedding her aloof, self-centered protagonists into the fold of thoughtful, questioning citizens who are confounded by regular breakdowns in technology and a growing sense of isolation from outside affairs.

And finally! After the first volume of bickering between the moderate Sleepless Leisha and her reactionary Sleepless foes, we finally get to see the social decay that Beggars in Spain often fuzzed about.

But first, let’s just come out and say it: The titles for these books are awful. “Beggars” looked ugly enough in the first volume, not to mention the weak reference fails at its geocultural point. (Why Spain?) And neither “beggars” nor “choosers” are even alluded to in the second installment because the analogy fits so poorly. The addition of the decadent “Livers” and public servant “donkeys” sound even worse… these aren’t realistic terms, they are derogatory slurs that not even Farmer’s absurdist society would willingly adopt for themselves. Besides that, these horrific social labels distract from the actual motif of this entire set up:

“Who should control radical technological advances and what impact will they have on society?”

More techno-fear than Red Scare, though the surface might suggest otherwise, it is a heavy-handed debate that is surprisingly engaging… even if you aren’t a political science major who grew up eating on the Lone Star Card and has to tie down her left knee to give others the floor. (Ahem, me).

Polemics aside, the most significant feature of the Beggars trilogy is Kress’ habit of writing women in non-gendered, unfeminized ways. Because of genetic enhancements, these women are viewed by society as the height of sexual attractiveness, yet their internal workings and external behaviors diverge from the standard genre characterization of women by conveying neutrality, logic, distance—what some people might call “cold.” They are not driven by romance, family attachments (although sometimes driven by parental trauma, which is, thankfully, only observed in the narrative, and not stated, so there is plenty to analyze), ambition, or passion. They just do. Much like how we often observe even the most “charismatic” of male leads. I find this divergence refreshing and subversive.

More specifically, Kress’ approach to writing rich, white women is interesting. We get plenty of rich, white women in fiction, from all kinds of authors, but not often with such familiar ambiguity. Flawed, almost to the point of contempt, yet intimate, as if manifesting from authorial-reflection. It’s disconcerting at first, especially because most of these rich, white characters are misleadingly positioned as protagonists. Some readers might interpret these characters as the established heroes of the narrative, and therefore the voices of reason, but Leisha’s moderate naiveté, Diana’s reactionary cynicism, and Drew’s (a male) self-centered obsessions will keep alert readers on their toes, especially as the lower classes they alternately condemn and (think they) defend rarely conform to their haughty worldviews. Things are just so simple for these elite characters, and within a text that highlights so many confused and complex perspectives, that’s the first clue that these lead characters are not heroes.

Genre readers have been trained on hero fiction for so long, some readers might fall into that pattern and misinterpret this tale. Kress is not the type of author to handhold readers away from that pattern, in fact, I think she relies on it to keep readers engaged (read: defensive or smug, depending on your POV). In Beggars in Spain, everyone is morally gray, but it might take the entire context of the book, with all of its table-tennis arguing, to see that. In Beggars & Choosers, the same applies, but this time, with the dive into “Liver” society, we see more of a distinct narrative distrust of all genetically modified people, while the “lazy” and “ignorant” “Livers,” the lower-class consumers of “Bread & Circuses,” reveal a more layered and nuanced existence.

But it’s not fair to dissect Kress’ characterization of the rich and elite without addressing the problematic portrayals of non-white characters. Each book contains at least one glaring instance of ethnic insensitivity that seems both unnecessary and offensive. In Beggars in Spain, I initially waved off the portrayal of an enemy Muslim character as an unfortunate consequence of a ‘90s unsophisticated attempt at diversifying a novella that, when following that character’s arc into the expanded novel, turned ugly. A sympathetic author would apologize upon being made aware of the misstep, but I stumbled upon an old interview in which Kress basically shrugged off the criticism as PC-oversensitivity. Beggars and Choosers continues the attitude during a very, very small scene, of which I am not going to describe because it relies on such a deeply embedded social stereotype, but hints at the same lack of sensitivity. Hopefully her perceptions have changed since then.

And there are other flaws. The “sleepless” element has long since run out of steam, to be replaced by a more general form of super-person. The prologue is unnecessary, and full of over-heightened dialogue. The final fifty pages unravel with a pointless cliffhanger to set up for the next novel. Some plot points seem too convenient, or unnecessary and over-complicated. Perhaps Kress is strongest in novella form.

Beggars&Choosers2But that said, I do appreciate Kress for creating books that I can think about, argue with, and that remain in the forefront of my mind long after I have read them. Like its predecessor, Beggars in Spain (1993), I went into Beggars & Choosers (1994) expecting to be bored, but rediscovered the pleasure of what Kress does well: portraying unsympathetic characters in misleading and intimate ways, designing surprising, effective twists, and establishing a sense of narrative distrust by toying with the reader’s own sensibilities. Whenever I enter one of her novels, two things go through my mind: one, can she pull this off? Two, is she trying to piss me off? And it’s an everlasting game of ping-pong after that.

Kress is a difficult SF author to categorize because, while she’s not literary in any sense beyond a more complete form of characterization, she writes within mainstream science fiction conventions, but outside of formula constraints, all while embracing, challenging, and twisting the reader’s reactions. And, of course, I’ll never forgive her for introducing me to the idea of being Sleepless, as I damn her characters nightly for their sleepless virtues when I want to stay up and do anything other than sleep.

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13 thoughts on “Beggars and Choosers (1994) by Nancy Kress

  1. Steph says:

    That is a very different take on the ultimate woman. It sounds like this has some very different and intriguing thinking behind it.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I like the way you worded that: “a very different take on the ultimate woman.” It certainly makes for some interesting conversation on how we view the superperson theme, particularly how it applies to women, as well as how those people might impact society. It’s not a pretty society, but I find the internal workings of her characters to be the most interesting part.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the well thought-out review and for teaching me the new word ‘polemics.’ 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Haha, no prob! I had a history professor tell me that I was too polemical one time and the word stuck. She was right, btw. 🙂

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  3. Grew up eating on the Lone Star Card? I am going to take a moment to pretend that is Texan slang for “tab of acid.” Heh. But really, what is a Lone Star Card?

    This book sounds really interesting if problematic. I also appreciate books that keep me thinking, even if they madden me. Is there a third book then? Will you read it?

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  4. fromcouchtomoon says:

    Oops, pardon my jargon. Lone Star Card is a credit card for food stamps. We were on public housing assistance, too. All while my mom worked full-time, went to to college full-time, and stole toilet paper from work. And this was during the golden ’90s. So I get a little annoyed when people suggest that so-called welfare recipients just kick back and draw checks from the govt to support their gambling habits. Those people have no idea what it costs to just survive.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      There is a third book. I’m not sure if I will read it, though I might be more interested in looking at her recent works, like YESTERDAY’S KIN. Kress is someone I never feel motivated to read, and then I read her and feel bad for dismissing her, especially because she is a successful female SF author who addresses challenging scifi topics and, while she’s no Kim Stanley Robinson or Ian McDonald, she also no Vernor Vinge or Charles Stross, just putting words together on a page in the most formulaic sense. Her BEGGARS universe is imaginative, inventive, and internally insightful. She is problematic, and I think she’s more conservative than I would like, although I’m sure she would call herself “moderate,” but you can’t really get a sense of her personal beliefs in these books. Plus, the puppies have never slated her for anything, and that’s always a good sign.

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  5. Lisalc says:

    I read Beggars in Spain, but haven’t decided whether to continue. The social commentary seemed so heavyhanded that it made the book too predictable. The portrayal of the female characters doesn’t follow the usual patterns, but I don’t know if that’s enough. And you are so right about the titles.

    Liked by 1 person

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      It remains heavy-handed throughout the second book, which I like, but I can see why most people don’t. I thought she included some pretty surprising plot twists, but it is basically a book about characters defining and defending and redefining their principles, sprinkled with some interesting technologies. Catnip for political theorists and futurists, but a turn off for other types of readers.

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  6. Joseph Nebus says:

    I remember finding the novella that grew into Beggars In Spain interesting when it appeared in a magazine. (Must have been Asimov’s.) I never got into the books, though.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I think a lot of people preferred the novella to the novel, and when she expanded it the more interesting “sleepless” idea got away from her and it turned into this labyrinthine argument about tech and socialism and what not.

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  7. […] an intelligent, biting, religious satire that offends everybody, even the intended audience. Beggars and Choosers is brimful of imaginative near-future technology with (often over-involved) philosophical […]

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  8. […] This review originally appeared on From couch to moon. […]

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