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[personal profile] seekingferret
I read Nancy Kress's novella Beggars in Spain Wednesday night. All of it, because I couldn't put it down and pretty soon it was 1:30am.

Fascinating story. I've heard so many positive things about it that it's long been on the list, but it wasn't anything like what I'd expected it to be.

The first third or so is basically Howard Roark makes a baby. Which is pretty hilarious. When Howard Roark (Kress's Roark is named Roger Camden) makes a baby, he makes a baby who is a perfect expression of his individuality, breaking any inconvenient law or rule that stands in his way and shoving aside any people who try to stop him, his wife included (or maybe especially). The fundamental feature he has genetically engineered into his baby is the ability to stay awake permanently. His daughter therefore joins the slowly growing class of genetically engineered superpeople known as the Sleepless.

If you didn't find something ghastly about The Fountainhead, in the way Roark's compulsive need to be validated as better than those around him drives him to bulldoze over people he considers less important than him in pursuit of his own individuality, then I'm not sure I want to be friends with you, but surely you'll concede that applying the same processes to the creation of a human life is grotesque in its self-contradiction. Camden's pseudo-objectivism comes into conflict with itself as he tries to create a baby that is an extension of his own individuality by teaching her to create extensions of her individuality. Randianism is premised on the idea that selfishness in conflict with selfishness somehow optimizes life. In the context of designing a life that will have to ultimately come into its own free will, treating it as an Objectivist project seems coercive and abusive. Worse, Camden's inevitable paternal disappointment when his hormonal teenage daughter disagrees with him betrays his Randian ideology.

The second third is the tale of that genetically engineered superbaby growing up, under the tutelage of her pseudo-Objectivist father, her alcoholic mother (later in the book, one of the characters says of Camden "He makes us this way", another brutally hilarious comic line. Camden's alcoholic wife, too, is an expression of Camden's individuality), her non-engineered twin sister, and her biologist step-mother. Which I mostly read as Kress doing I, Robot. The prose is in an Asimovian mode, with longwinded dialogues doing the heavy lifting of exploring the philosophical questions Kress is asking. Also, most of the questions Kress is asking about the Sleepless and their place in society could be easily transposed to a story like "The Evitable Conflict" or "Evidence" simply by changing the word Sleepless to Robot. Though certainly there are other SF models that this part of Beggars bears resemblance to, from Shelley's Frankenstein to Sturgeon's More than Human to McCaffrey's Pegasus series to Bujold's Falling Free.

All of these models, perhaps excepting Frankenstein, are works that have been criticized for stylistic clumsiness as part of a so-called Literature of Ideas that subordinates character development and plotting to the exploration of philosophical questions. Beggars is very much a part of this tradition, and it has some of the same stylistic clumsiness. Then again, Susan Calvin is one of my favorite literary characters and Howard Roark one of my least favorite, so I have always been skeptical of claims that the techniques of the Literature of Ideas truly are inferior at creating compelling characters. I think that as long as the Literature of the Ideas is exploring meaningful ideas about people and how they live their lives, interesting portraits of characters have the potential to emerge. Whether they do is up to the skill of the writer.

The vignettes of Leisha growing up that Kress describes are very alien, which Kress highlights in an excellent scene between Leisha and her first boyfriend Richard in which they form a connection by complaining about the strange ways in which ordinary life reminds the Sleepless of their differences, and the emotional cost of the distancing from humanity that results: Those moments when they want to continue doing something active but their non-Sleepless companion is exhausted. Those moments when their non-Sleepless companions describe dreaming and they have no frame of reference to compare. Those moments when the Sleepless mention their abilities and the non-Sleepless look at them like freaks.

The final third of the novella is a relatively unskilled suspense/action sequence, at odds with the novel's otherwise anti-kinetic Asimovian writing, and yet one wonders if that was not the point, since the thematic purpose of this section is to demonstrate heretofore unseen limitations on Leisha and force her to come to unexpected solutions, and particularly to force her to reach out to the non-Sleepless friends she has accumulated almost accidentally in spite of herself.

The book, in the classic tradition of Literature of Ideas SF, has given me a lot to think about. Highly recommended, even though I have some misgivings about its form.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-09-19 03:24 pm (UTC)
grrlpup: (Default)
From: [personal profile] grrlpup
it's been on my list forever! clearly I should move it up.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-09-19 07:58 pm (UTC)
cahn: (Default)
From: [personal profile] cahn
I must confess I have a sneaking fondness for Roark, probably due to reading the Fountainhead at just the right teenager age. It's funny to read your post, because I reread the Fountainhead recently (it's so over-the-top, and with some great slash, that I find it amusing to reread every so often, and okay, I like Peter Keating a lot and feel that he needs a hug) and what struck me on this reread is that Roark is an alien, somehow he just doesn't think or react the same way as actual human people, even the other characters Rand likes (this is even brought up explicitly by at least one other character -- I do think that Rand still had enough critical faculty at this stage to realize that much). I also am not sure I feel Roark had a compulsive need to be validated; the only instance I can think of is blowing up Cortlandt, which, yeah, okay, is pretty shady. (Honestly, I tend to usually skip over Cortlandt in general, because I really can't take Rand's 50-page monologues.) I don't see Roark seeking for validation as much as I see him just not understanding the way actual human people behave because he is an alien; people try to explain to him that other people care about, you know, regular human adult interaction, and he's all "...bwuh? I don't get it?" (Actually, inspired by your post, maybe Roark is a robot! A robot created with the imperative to do architecture! That would... explain a lot. I... kind of want this fic now.) Whereas the other Rand-admirable characters in the Fountainhead (Dominique, Wynand, Cameron, etc.), I felt, are more likely to get it and to understand basic rules of adult interaction, but to bulldoze over other people anyway.

(Compare basically every Rand-admirable character in Atlas Shrugged, on the other hand, and particularly John Galt -- those guys have a compulsive need to be validated, yeah... Rand had clearly lost all critical faculty to evaluate her own characters by that point. Ugggh. I have zero fondness for any of those characters.)

But anyway. I've always been amused that Rand's philosophy breaks down so completely if you bring kids into the picture, for many of the reasons you describe, although you articulate it much better than I ever have... And I have always liked how Kress skewers it in the person of Camden. Leisha's epiphany of an ecology rather than a straight Objectivist-style principle of exchange is something that's always stuck with me since I read Beggars as a teenager (probably around the time I read Fountainhead, in fact). I should read it again, especially if I'm going to reread the Fountainhead, ha. (I then went on to read the novel -- which I remember as basically being a padded-out version of the novella -- and the sequels. I remember really disliking the sequels for spoilery reasons, and wonder if this would be the case upon second reading.)

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