Science fiction has a long history of struggling with complex philosophical ideas through elaborate “what if?” scenarios. Science fiction novels ranging from 1984 to The Lathe of Heaven to The Postmortal address a range of moral and ethical quandaries and allow problems to play out in worlds both similar and different to the one we know. Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress is one such work that addresses serious ethical questions about genetic modification, the rights of the individual versus the needs of the community and the questions of how community is defined.
In Beggars in Spain, genetic modification has become a reality. Parents can select for physical traits, certain behavioral traits can be encouraged if not yet selected for, and things like enhanced intelligence can also be chosen. One possible modification is eliminating the need to sleep. Leisha Camden’s father, a firm believer in individual effort, elects to have his daughter be a Sleepless. Other affects of this genetic modification include increased intelligence, a tendency toward having a pleasant disposition and, apparently, a much slower aging process.
The Sleepless change the way the world works. They come to dominate the business world very quickly after some Sleepless reach age 18. The possibilities for normal people who can’t compete against the Sleepless disappear quickly. First rhetoric against Sleepless becomes prevalent, and after the murder of one of the first Sleepless, the Sleepless remove themselves to an orbiting space station they call Sanctuary. The economy segments itself into those who live on the work of others (livers), those who work as politicians and businesspeople (donkeys), and those who pay for it all (the Sleepless). This delicate balance begins to fall apart when the demands of the United States become too great for Sanctuary to continue to comply. But the Sleepless have modified their own children to be even more intelligent than they are, and questions of what the Supers owe to the Sleepless and how they interact recall the way the Sleepless treat unmodified people.