Review of Beggars Ride by Nancy Kress
by Nancy Kress
Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Uh-oh. Jennifer Sharifi is back. This can't be good for the story, and last time she was the antagonist, it wasn't good for the book either.
I'll say this about Nancy Kress: she has a way of surprising me. I did not expect her to kill off Leisha Camden so abruptly in Beggars and Choosers. The stunning events that happen in Beggars Ride, some of which are the result of Jennifer's decisions, were no less shocking. For most of the book, I kept thinking, "That didn't happen. That could not have happened. This must be some kind of trick; there will be a twist at the end, a revelation that everything is all right." But there was no twist, no trick. Kress played it straight for the entire book, delivering in this way a fitting conclusion to her genetic narrative of strife, interdependence, and family conflicts.
The Jennifer Sharifi of Beggars Ride is much different from the Jennifer of Beggars in Spain, whom I likened to a moustache-twirlng villain. Twenty-seven years in prison have mellowed Jennifer, or maybe Kress has just decided to give us a more intimate look beyond Jennifer's careful composure. Whatever the case, we actually get glimpses at Jennifer's feelings instead of just narration about how careful and calculating her mind is. We get to watch her anguish over some of the hard choices she makes, choices she feels are necessary to protect the Sleepless, even if they have a high cost for her personally. There is a vulnerability to Jennifer present that I had never seen before, and that made her so much more compelling.
Beggars Ride follows up on what has become of humanity after Miranda Sharifi and the SuperSleepless rained Change syringes down on the world at the end of Beggars and Choosers. Injection with a syringe furnishes a human body with Cell Cleaner, a nanotechnology that eliminates foreign bacteria and viruses and repairs or destroys damaged cells. It also modifies the human body to make humans able to absorb nutrients from soil or any other organic material through micro-tubules extending up between skin cells. (Kress calls this "autotrophic," but I'm not sure this is strictly correct, since as I understand it, autotrophs absorb inorganic compounds. But it's been a while since I studied chemistry.) These changes are not hereditary, and with Change syringes in scarce supply, more and more children are being born only to grow up unChanged. Various groups, from religious cults to doctors associations, regularly beam messages to the SuperSleepless retreat on the moon, pleading for more Change syringes. And, oh yes, immortality. Because if you give a mouse a cookie….
Beggars in Spain was all about the division between Sleepless and Sleepers, with the latter worried that the former would replace them as a more successful, more productive, "superior" version of humanity. So the Sleepers pushed the Sleepless away, and Beggars and Choosers looks at what has become of Sleeper society since then. Now, in Beggars Ride, Kress reveals that, far from gaining separation and independence from the Sleepless, Sleeper society is now totally dependent on them for more Change syringes. The irony that Miranda's gift to humanity did not, as she so joyously claimed at the end of Beggars and Choosers, make humanity free, is not lost on the reader, or on Miranda herself, for that matter. For all of her technological and neurological expertise, Miranda failed to account for the sociological factors that surrounded her gift of the Change syringes. The Liver/donkey dichotomy Kress depicts in Beggars and Choosers is still present in Beggars Ride, just altered. The key to understanding the present state of the society is to realize something that, while probably obvious in the previous book, was not made explicit until now: everyone has pretty much given up. No one is interested in minding the store, not the donkeys, and certainly not the Livers.
Theoretically, the Livers, who vastly outnumber the donkeys, are supposed to give votes in exchange for material goods and promised services. In return, the donkeys gain power and prestige. The Livers are raised to believe that they are privileged not to work, that education is a chore, and all they should be doing is racing scooters and having sex and complaining when the soy food dispenser breaks. The Change syringes upset this balance, but the separation between the two classes remains: donkeys exist in private, fortified enclaves in the shells of the former great cities of the United States; Livers roam across the country in "tribes," attempting to fend for themselves. And the donkeys could not care less about the Liver population any more, although the legal and electoral relationship between the two classes still remains. If the Livers have been encouraged to engage in lives of epic hedonism, then the donkey enclaves, thanks to the Change syringes, have shifted into a haughty Epicureanism. They have lost all interest in governance or leadership, and those donkeys who do run for office do so pretty much solely for the power those positions bring. Mostly, the donkeys spend their time looking for new thrills and new experiences, because the Cell Cleaner destroys mood-enhancing drugs too quickly to make them effective.
We see this happening through the eyes of Jackson Aranow, a naive donkey doctor, and his sister, Theresa. Jackson is your typical disaffected donkey; he doesn't really care about managing the business he part-owns, nor is his work as a doctor very stimulating or challenging now that Cell Cleaner takes care of almost every ailment. Yet Jackson has not quite succumbed to the nihilistic malaise slowly pervading donkey society; he merely recognizes its approach in the form of his smoking hot ex-wife, Cazie. Cazie is forceful, even domineering at times, but also a little on the crazy side; there is one memorable scene where she drags Jackson up to a party on another floor of his apartment building. At the party, everyone is lying around in the mud, feeding together (sometimes very together, if you catch my drift). And they are taking terms throwing knives at each other; protected by Y-shielding, the targets are in no real danger. The knives are laced with one of two compounds: one that induces pleasure by directly stimulating the brain, and another that induces pain. One doesn't know what one will get, and that's the thrill that Cazie and others who have been dulled by the cleanliness of Cell Cleaner seek.
Jackson flees from that kind of party, a little disgusted and even vaguely ashamed. This scene sticks in my mind because I think it is a turning point in his relationship with Lizzie, Vicki, and the Liver tribe. Cazie's behaviour makes Jackson realize that the donkey way of life is fast becoming more of a sham than any pretensions to aristocracy that the Livers previously had. He can no longer pretend to be ignorant or apathetic, because if he does, then he will soon live in a society he cannot abide. So he cautiously starts to reach out to the only thing he knows is different, the only people who look like they are willing to change—because, aside from engineering a product that can work around Cell Cleaner's effectiveness, the donkeys don't really want to change. They're happy with the status quo, and that will kill them. As Vicki observes, no one wants to take responsibility for what has happened since the Change began; everyone blames Miranda for not continuing to provide Change syringes.
So human society has entered a crisis of faith, a literal one, for some people. Miranda Sharifi took the world by storm by dropping Change syringes, and now she and the SuperSleepless have sequestered themselves again. Kress includes interludes consisting of short messages sent to the SuperSleepless colony on the moon, beseeching Miranda to send more Change syringes. But there is never an answer (for a very good reason, though I won't spoil it here), and we get the impression that, thematically, there can't be an answer. The SuperSleepless have run into the classic god paradox: if you try to do too much, you end up making people dependent on you. This is not necessarily a comment about human nature but rather a consequence of herd mentality: societies prefer the familiar and look to where they know help can be found. And when that help isn't forthcoming, then they turn to insults, wondering why the Miranda has "abandoned" them to let their children suffer.
It's this combination of social change with biological, technologically-induced causes that makes Nancy Kress' books so riveting. She takes a miraculous invention like the Cell Cleaner and then points out that, by fixing "flaws" with our current physiology, it will also deprive us of things we consider good. Kress demonstrates something about science fiction that makes it so compelling for me: every great invention, every new piece of technology, comes with benefits and drawbacks. And we, as a society, seldom understand what the drawbacks are until we have plunged headfirst into reaping the benefits (fossil fuels, anyone?). We are somewhat-clever apes, tinkering with toys that we don't really understand, and sometimes that gets us into trouble. It is a great way to create conflict for a story, exploring all the while a facet of what it means to be human.
This is where Jennifer enters the plot as a villain. So far I've focused on the passive consequences of Cell Cleaner. Jennifer intentionally sets out to pervert our idea of humanity even further, devising a means to alter permanently the paths in one's amygdala. She wants to make people afraid of anything new, reasoning that if she can accomplish this on a wide scale, she will have eliminated any unseen threats to her and the rest of the Sleepless in Sanctuary:
… no one will ever be able to threaten us again, except in those ways we already understand and can counter. We will be in control, if only because there will never again be any unknown devils unleashed against us.
It's totally off-the-rails insane, of course, and other characters make the obvious connection to genocide-through-inaction. Jennifer essentially attempts to engineer stagnation into human society. But she fails, twice over. She allows her disgust for Sleepers motivated by greed to overpower her natural cautiousness. And she fails to realize that life, by definition, resists stagnation. Evolution is change.
And so we come to Theresa Aranow, my favourite character. UnChanged, Theresa's abnormal neurological development has resulted in a mental state quite similar to what Jennifer wants: afraid of the wider world, afraid of change or new experiences. Theresa spends most of her time isolated in the apartment she shares with Jackson, reading and writing about Leisha Camden and collecting quotations from the datanet. Periodically she makes these quixotic attempts to break free from this shell and make some sort of difference. She always meets failure, however, for a variety of reasons: either the experience does not live up to its promise, such as when she visits a convent only to find out they use drugs to "get closer to God"; or, an external force interrupts her, such as when she visits Richard Sharifi's compound in La Solana just as it gets nuked. Theresa is a little bit tragic but also possesses an incredible fortitude that makes her all the more endearing. She shares with Jackson a naivety, but his comes off as annoying or pretentious because it is a wilful ignorance, and casting off that ignorance is Jackson's personal growth in this book. Theresa is naive because she just lacks so much experience, but her personality grows by leaps and bounds.
Through Theresa's thoughts and actions, Kress shapes her final, somewhat optimistic message to us regarding human behaviour, genetics, and neurochemistry. One of the philosophical crucibles of posthumanism is the question of biological determinism: to what extent is our behaviour determined by our bodies, by our brain chemistry? This is central to all of the far-reaching inquiries of the posthumanists, from mind-uploading to immortality. Or, as Kress explains:
A medical solution would of course be simpler, easier, faster. Just take a neuropharm. With the right neuropharm, you could become less fearful, more fearful, more lusty, more hopeful, less angry, more lethargic … anything. But Theresa and her disciples weren't using neuropharms. So the question wasn't, as Jackson had always assumed, how neurochemically driven were humans? The question was, why were they ever driven by anything but neurochemicals? Why—and how—could men and women choose against their own fear, lust, hope, anger, inertia? Because clearly they could choose that. Theresa was doing so, right in front of his eyes. So not—isn't man just a bunch of chemicals? Rather—how could man ever be anything else?
It is easy to become lost in the events of global consequence in Beggars Ride and the larger social commentary at work there. As the above passage demonstrates, however, there is a much deeper level present, one where Kress introduces us to some very intriguing questions about selfhood and behaviour. This is what science fiction does, and my only regret is that it takes until the final book of this trilogy for Kress to achieve this zenith. I didn't, and still don't, like Beggars in Spain. I was worried, in fact, that this series would turn out to be another Clockwork Earth: a very disappointing first book followed by two mediocre sequels. But I had more faith in Nancy Kress, and she did not let me down. Beggars Ride is an excellent work in its own right and a fitting culmination to a series that, while not without flaws and pitfalls, presents a thoughtful look at the social consequences of directing our evolution.