Review of Beggars and Choosers by Nancy Kress
Beggars and Choosers
by Nancy Kress
My golden standard when it comes to stories of genetic manipulation and its effects on society is Gattaca. I've only seen it twice, I think, yet its impact on my consciousness (and conscience) remains clear in my mind. Growing up concurrently with the Human Genome Project and watching the advancements in genetics that are happening in my lifetime, I am wary of what will happen if governments, corporations, and people do not reach a social contract on how we will treat this new capability. Corporations are patenting our genes; insurance companies jump at any chance to discriminate based on a "pre-existing condition;" and it is only a matter of time before athletic organizations must deal with "enhanced" participants. We're nearing that threshold; I can feel it, and I really don't want to see the world become something like that depicted in Gattaca.
Beggars and Choosers doesn't follow exactly the same route as the movie, but it does meet my Gattaca standard. The United States has not quite gone apocalyptic on us yet, but it's getting there. Society has fractured into a 20/80 split of "donkeys" and "Livers." The donkeys do the administrative work, governing, running businesses, building and inventing new technology, etc. The Livers engage in "aristo" activities (including often-deadly scooter races), trading their votes to those donkeys who promise them the best services. In a very Gattaca-esque way, donkey families purchase the best genemods they can for their children. Livers do not engage in genemodding. And in orbit above Earth, the Sleepless still live in Sanctuary, though it did not quite manage to secede. Their SuperSleepless children have returned to Earth but sequestered themselves on a newly-made island, Huevos Verdes. And the trouble has only begun.
This book departs notably from Beggars in Spain. Fortunately, I think most of the changes are for the better. Kress elects to tell the story from the first-person perspective of several narrators. Interestingly, Miranda Sharifi, the SuperSleepless protagonist from the first book, is not one of them—nor is the original protagonist, Leisha Camden, whose role is much reduced. Kress very visibly passes the reins on to the next generation, and we get to see inside the heads of Diana, a donkey; Drew Arlen, the Lucid Dreamer and Miranda's lover; and Billy Washington, an old Liver who vaguely remembers what life was like back before such distinctions became meaningful. I liked, though not equally, all of these characters and their perspectives. Each of them undergoes experiences that challenge his or her beliefs and leads to a distinctive arc of character development. So not only is Beggars and Choosers a deep science-fiction novel about the repercussions of genetic engineering, but it is also a very good story. This is something I couldn't say about Beggars in Spain, and I am pleased to return Nancy Kress to the pedestal she deserves in my personal Authors Hall of Fame.
The Supers, under Miranda's guidance, are "up to something." Billy Washington lives in East Oleanta, a small community in New York State. The technology on which his community relies is degrading, a result, we learn later, of a genetically-engineered organism that digests "duragem," a phlebtonium substance present in most advanced technology. With everything from kitchen bots to gravrail trains breaking down, the Livers are having a hard time, well, living. At first it seems like a plot by the Supers to force the Livers to take responsibility for their own wellbeing rather than relying only on the donkeys they vote into office. Drew Arlen's inspirational Lucid Dreaming performance, "The Warrior," which leaves Livers with a desire to take risks and help each other, seems to confirm this suspicion. Yet as the story progresses, Kress reveals that the truth is far more complex. Someone else is responsible for the duragem plague, and while the Supers are not happy about it, they aren't entirely unhappy with it either, for it does play into their plans.
This ambiguity is a welcome change from the stark and opposing ideologies from Beggars in Spain. Since we do not get exposed to any Super perspectives, we are left in the dark as to what they are actually planning—kept guessing, actually, which I enjoyed to no end. The closest we get are glimpses through Drew Arlen's eyes, which mostly serve only to confirm to him, and us, how much of an outsider he remains despite his relationship with Miranda. So unlike in the first book, where the Supers' decision to undermine Jennifer and her supporters is clearly a good thing, the morality of what the Supers are doing is not so obvious here. Indeed, watching Drew's faith in Miranda falter, dim, and eventually gutter out is poignant and moving. Toward the climax, when Drew has to choose whether to call on Miranda for help or betray her to the GSEA, I really felt like I was reading a tragedy about these two main characters. Kress hasn't just written a book about the effects of genetic engineering on the wider society. Beggars and Choosers is an intensely personal story.
That doesn't change with Billy Washington. He begins to wake up to the fact that not all is right with the donkey/Liver dynamic, especially when he encounters the enigmatic Miranda and her laboratory hideaway, stylized "Eden." Billy is driven almost wholly by concern for Angie and her daughter, Lizzie, who is quite intelligent for a Liver. As tensions in the community run high, Billy risks his life for them, finally breaking out of the traditional Liver mould to take up the mantle of, essentially, a hero:
There was a confusion in the crowd. But a surprising number of Livers followed their new leader, burning to do something. To be heroes, which is the true hidden driver of the human mind.
That commentary comes from Drew after one of his performances of "The Warrior." I've always believed that the "greatest" people are those who inspire us to be better people ourselves (which is why I'm such a fan of the Doctor, from Doctor Who, but that's neither here nor there). Kress seizes on something true: beyond that basic need for survival, we yearn for connection, for community. We yearn to act, to accomplish, and yes, to be heroes, if not in the eyes of others than in our own personal tales. And Drew is resurrecting and reinforcing this aspect of human nature, releasing it from wherever society's emphasis on social and genetic engineering has banished it. That's what stories and storytellers do.
The third narrator, who is actually the first one in the book, is Diana Covington. She is an atypical agent of the Genetic Standards Enforcement Agency (guess what they do!) who gets involved with the situation in Billy's community. She befriends Billy and Lizzie, supporting the latter's drive to learn by exposing her to more opportunities for education, much to Angie's disapproval. Gradually, Diana herself shifts from a rather listless donkey who doesn't quite know what she wants in her life to a convicted person who has a much better appreciation of how Livers live and how fragile American society has become. While she begins the story as an opponent of the Supers and their plot, whatever that is, eventually she has no choice but to find succour in Miranda.
The climax of Beggars and Choosers is nothing short of a gamechanger. We eventually learn what the Supers have been planning, and it involves a transformation of the body that they consider beneficial and liberating. Central to the climax is the question of whether the Supers have the right to decide for all humanity whether such a dramatic change is "right." They do not force it upon humanity in the sense that they release a pathogen, but they distribute vials that cause the transformation—and, as far as Kress tells it, there are no side effects, no fatalities for the change. As much as the changes themselves might be a great boon, however, the deeper moral issue remains: what right do the Supers have to dictate such a change? Drew and Diana both struggle with this, and in a sense the question becomes largely academic once the deed is done. Nevertheless, it's both thought-provoking and dramatically effective, for this is the final wedge in the relationship between Miranda and Drew. Although already tragic, the coda to Beggars and Choosers provides a pithy, ringing note to end both their story and the novel as a whole:
Oh, Miranda … I'm sorry.
I never intended…
But I would try to stop you again. And I don't expect you to understand.
What, exactly, does this mean? It seems like Drew eventually decides that the Supers are so different they cannot be considered human; their thought processes and ethics are just alien. I'm not sure if this is the case—and of course, the underlying theme here is that the difference is subjective rather than genetic. We cannot draw a line between "human" and "non-human," "posthuman," or "more than human" by dint of modified genes alone. But once a technology is developed and released, it cannot easily be retracted or redacted. In the book, one of the characters notes that nuclear weapons seem to be an exception, citing the two strikes to Japan as the only time they were used in war. Further consideration should belie this example: certain countries continue to use nuclear devices to this day, albeit not in open warfare; and the capability to construct those devices remains.
Really though, the comparison is rather inaccurate: a nuclear weapon is a weapon of mass destruction and inherently dangerous. The danger with genetic engineering is that it is all too easy to fail to perceive the danger. What's wrong with preventing terminal diseases and congenital defects? What's wrong with lengthening the life-span and banishing cancer? What's wrong with attempting to give one's children an advantage by tweaking intelligence, ambition, or compassion? Beggars in Spain develops that theme, showing how concern for one's children—for our future—can have unexpected consequences. Beggars and Choosers continues this, but its philosophy is now accompanied by a great story and believable characters. Instead of focusing on the question of children, Kress explores the dynamics between genetics and class and asks who should be in charge of regulating scientific advances and deciding, for humanity, what constitutes appropriate genetic manipulation.
I try not to define too rigidly what I consider "good SF," because sometimes "good" anything just defies rigid definitions! As far as such definitions go, however, Beggars and Choosers must meet them, for it depicts not necessarily what our society will be or even what it could be but some of the moral and social dilemmas we will face as we push science and technology faster and more furiously than ever before.