Sunday, January 10, 2016

Classic Sci-Fi Meetup- Beggars in Spain

For January's convocation of the Classic Sci-Fi Book Group, we discussed "Beggars in Spain", the 1993 novel by Nancy Kress (expanded from the novella of the same name).

"Beggars" takes place over about a hundred years, and follows the societal changes arising from genetic engineering of the human race. The biggest split comes to be between baseline humans and "Sleepless", the latter of whom have a complicated hack that allows them to live without ever needing to sleep. Besides the extra productivity this affords them, they have many other direct and indirect advantages over baseline humanity--most of them come from the upper class, who also paid to have their children's bodies and minds improved, and it also turns out that the Sleepless modification has unexpected side effects including lack of mental disease and extreme longevity.

While the surface tension in the book is thus of the hatred engendered by a superior minority, the deeper themes are sociopolitical, revolving around an Ayn Rand-like philosophy and a more communitarian one. An unusually good book to discuss. Spoilers below:

I should note first off that a lot of us at group praised this book for its writing style, scope of story, and thought-provoking topics, with a few people mentioning that the experience of reading it was not at all what they had anticipated based on the book's summary.

One of the things that jumps out, and that we spent a lot of time discussing, is what I guess I might call socioeconomic philosophy. The book contains the fictional philosophy of "Yagaiism", which seems a very close analog of Objectivism (the Rand version), which venerates trade & the contract while rejecting all forms of compulsory contribution to the common good (e.g. taxes) as theft. The end of the novel, in which the orbital community of (genius, creator) Sleepless are being taxed as the sole supporters of a nation of otherwise-indigent Sleepers ("Livers", takers, beggars) is pretty much a Randian dystopia.

However, Kress & the novel don't seem to be coming cleanly down on Rand's side, and the novel and its primary protagonist struggle with the question of community and how to care for people who have nothing or who cannot contribute. Kress has said that the utopian visions of Le Guin were in her mind, such as "The Dispossessed" (1974, and incidentally my first and pre-Positron Classic SF meetup).

These themes led us to long discussions of tax schemes and economic inequality. In particular, we wondered about where all the janitors and lab assistants come from on Sanctuary (the Sleepless orbital), and we discussed the unlikeliness of a totally-unemployed welfare state as depicted here. This was also something we raised eyebrows at in our recent discussion of "The Forever War". As Mark put it, there's been "3,000 years of predicting technology-driven unemployment," yet we keep finding stuff to do. That led us on a long tangent about the service industry, global vs. local inequality (has radically dropped globally despite a swing the other way in the US since the 70s), the actual purpose of taxing schema (generating revenue vs. encouraging behaviors & modulating economic patterns), which may be why we see so many Australians on vacation here--which caused those of us in the Chicago service industry to let out a collective "huh!"

This discussion in the context of the orbiting habitat led to the phrase Voodoo Economics...From Space! Which would actually make a good title for a pop-economics book drawing on SF if anybody wants to make that happen.

The question of whether Sanctuary (the Sleepless orbital) should secede from the U.S. or not led to an interesting discussion. Much debate over whether the situation is that of a colony breaking away from an oppressive, distant progenitor (à la the American Revolution, and being SF fans we also brought up Heinlein's 1966 "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress"), or that of a multinational corporation that relied on many community resources for its formation but then sucks profit away tax-free.

We talked for a bit about the trope of a super-powered minority who are hated for their abilities. The X-Men comic universe is among the more prominent places this has been examined with superheroes, so we talked about that for a bit--I also brought up Van Vogt's "Slan" (1940), essentially the same thing, and how early SF fans identified strongly with that work. Someone else brought up "Brilliance" by Marcus Sakey, a Chicago author.

On a more serious comparison, we also talked about the perception of European Jews prior to WWII, an analogy the Sleepless explicitly make in the book. And, perhaps ironically, we talked a bit about Nietzsche's critique of the Master-Slave morality, which lines up fairly well with the Sleepless/Yagaiist/Randian objection to the idea that we owe anything to "the beggars".

Brief discussion of the "Liver/donkey" system, and discussion of voting systems relative to pork barrel & welfare, and the difference between "buying votes" and "buying with votes".

Economic & philosophical issues aside, we also talked for quite a bit about the mechanics and possibilities of Sleeplessness. Some of us were a bit dismayed that "these people have 8 extra hours a day, and they choose to use them to work more?" Regarding the issue of parents who had problems caring for their Sleepless children, Zaid pointed out the importance of making sure that "videogames come before Sleepless in the tech tree". We talked for a bit about actual sleep & circadian rhythms, the non-total sleep of marine mammals, and how awful it is to be awake all the way through a drinking session and the resulting hangover. Those of us in the know gave a shudder.

Clock vs. solar time- red areas
are "later" relative to the sun,
blue "earlier".
Via Stefano Maggiolo.
We also talked about the impact of artificial vs. "natural" time (clocktime vs. solar), especially for people whose work involves communication across timezones, or who have non-9-to-5 jobs.  Regarding the unnatural feeling and strange psychological effects of sleeplessness, though, we mentioned the weird season disorientation reported by people from temperate climates who move to relatively seasonless places, or the mental effects brought on by long light/dark swings near the poles. I again recommended the documentary "Antarctica: A Year on the Ice" (2013, dir. Anthony Powell), about the teams who winter-over there.

We liked the relationship of Leisha Camden (the primary Sleepless protagonist for most of the work) and her twin, baseline sister Alice, seeing there a microcosm for the larger Sleepless/Sleeper interactions. And we talked about the twin-ESP woo thing.

Many of us really liked the Super-Sleepless, finding that the viewpoint shift there really let us in their heads more, made them feel more human. But a few of us were freaked out by their giant heads, twitching/drooling, and incest-tinged sex drives. Well, each to their own.

Not quite how I pictured Drew, but okay.
While Drew's lucid-dreaming-hypno-spoken-word show...thing was a little hard for some of to swallow on a believability level, we really liked how it worked structurally. Drew, who comes from the beggar/Sleeper world, who's not as smart or educated, who's physically disabled, is able to provide to the Super-Sleepless what they need to move forward--the emotional, non-linear, associative way of thinking that they were lacking. Someone compared Drew's art to the magician/illusionist Doug Henning, who often closed his shows with a speech about how  "Anything the mind can conceive is possible."

A great discussion! And a few of us I think are going to go on and read the rest of the trilogy. I read them, but ages ago, might have to dig them out.

We agreed that our new meeting space works pretty well-upstairs at the Red Lion Pub, so that will be our space for now. Next month's selection is Doris Lessing's "The Marriages Between Zones 3, 4 and 5", marking the first time we've read a Nobel winner.

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