Beggars and Choosers (novel)

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Beggars and Choosers
Author Nancy Kress
Country United States
Language English
Series Sleepless series
Genre Science fiction novel
Publisher William Morrow and Company
Publication date
1994
Media type Print (Hardcover & Paperback)
Pages 378 pp
ISBN 0-8125-5010-2
OCLC 34147437
Preceded by Beggars in Spain
Followed by Beggars Ride, (1996)

Beggars and Choosers is a Hugo-nominated 1994 science-fiction novel by Nancy Kress. It is a sequel to the Hugo-winning Beggars in Spain, and was followed by Beggars Ride in 1996.

Background[edit]

The Beggars trilogy is set in a near future in which genetic engineering has become commonplace. "Genemods" were developed for intelligence, physical features, personality, enhanced sensory perception, and so on, but when Dr. Susan Melling discovered a genemod to alleviate the need for sleep, she changed the face of the world. These so-called "Sleepless" were not only more productive, due to 33% more hours in the day, but less prone to the vagaries of the unconscious mind due to their inability to sleep; they were well-adjusted, cheerful, intelligent, driven, and quickly came to dominate the scientific, economic, intellectual, medical, legal and technological arenas of the world, often at unprecedentedly young ages. As with many successful minorities, they were the target of prejudice, racism and general intolerance, but the final blow came when Melling discovered an unexpected side effect. The sleeplessness genemod had unlocked an unprecedented cellular-regeneration mechanism, and Sleepless do not age. At the start of the novel, their oldest specimen, computer magnate Kevin Baker, looks 35 years old but actually is 110.

Beggars and Choosers begins in July 2114, in a United States of America that has evolved into a bizarre three-tiered social system. 80% of the population are "Livers," fat, contented and unemployed, who enjoy a life of "aristo leisure." However, they hold power through votes, and elect politicians into power based on those candidates' promises for future prosperity. These politicians inevitably come from the "donkeys," the genemod white-collar class who, depending on who you ask, are either above or below the Livers: true, they hold political office, but they must provide a constant flow of bread and circuses to stay there. (The entertainments are often named after the official who provides them, a form of product placement run amok.) Finally, the Sleepless have banded together as the economic elite, withdrawn (voluntarily) from the American political process and live on an orbital called Sanctuary, but the source of every innovation, whether technological, scientific or genetic, that the donkeys need to stay in power. In 2092 Sanctuary attempted to secede from the United States, but were prevented by the intervention of Miranda Sharifi, leader of the "Superbright" contingent—a generation of 27 Sleepless with such advanced genemods that they no longer think the way other humans do. The Supers, exiled by Sanctuary leader (and Miri's grandmother) Jennifer Sharifi as her last act before her trial, came to Earth under the wing of ex-lawyer and philanthropist Leisha Camden, the only remaining Sleepless without ties to Sanctuary, and have since built themselves an island, "La Isla," off the coast of Mexico, using nanotechnology that is years more advanced than anything either donkey or Sleepless can boast.

Despite this infusion of foreign brainpower, America has undergone stressful times in recent years; in 2080 (several decades after this political system evolved) the exclusive patents for Kenzo Yagai's cold fusion technology, "Y-energy," ran out, and the United States entered a profound economic slump from which it has not quite recovered. Even worse, the machinery that allows the Liver lifestyle—gravrails, medunits, robots, and even the soysynth cafeterias—have begun suffering frequent breakdowns for unknown reasons.

Plot summary[edit]

Main Characters[edit]

The novel details events from July 2115 to the summer of 2116. Unlike its predecessor, which was written in third person limited omniscient, Beggars and Choosers is written from the first-person view of three characters.

  • Diana Covington is an agent of the Genetic Standards Enforcement Agency. In the past she was trained by a shadowy government organization so secretive that no trace of the program, or its graduates, was recorded. The exact nature of the training is never specified, though she is used for undercover surveillance; she is also the only graduate of that program who is still "off the grid." She is well-educated, like most donkeys, but cynical and self-deprecating.
  • Billy Washington is an elderly Liver, who still remembers the way life was before he became part of the aristo leisure class. Billy is well aware of his age and fading health. He is also an accomplished woodsman and often takes week-long trips into the forest.
  • Drew Arlen is the Lucid Dreamer, a man who, through a botched behavior-modification operation, became able to manipulate the collective unconscious of human beings using visual imagery. He is now a performance artist, utilizing holograms, subliminal imagery, music and spoken word. He is also the lover of Miranda Sharifi. His concerts have become an integral part of SuperSleepless thought patterns: it grants them access to the subconscious, which they are otherwise cut off from due to their genetic inability to sleep. He is the one person who can go to and from La Isla at will. He equates all stimuli with geometric objects, often with their own texture and color. He is also an important part of whatever project the Supers are working on, but is often left in the dark, only partially due to his (relatively) low intelligence.

Though she does not narrate, a fourth character is critical to the story:

  • Miranda Sharifi, firstborn and leader of the SuperSleepless upon La Isla and the business they founded, Huevos Verdes Corporation. Miri and the Supers are clearly up to something, but what they are doing does not become clear until the end of the book. She has an over-sized bullet-shaped head, like all Supers, and keeps her long black hair back with a red ribbon.

Summary[edit]

The novel opens with the narration of Diana Covington, detailing the beginning of her service with the GSEA. She is commissioned by her superior, Colin Kowalski, to "tail" members of the SuperSleepless community, specifically Miranda Sharifi. Supers have been traveling around the country, incognito, and the GSEA wants to know why. Diana monitors Miranda Sharifi at a hearing of the Science Court, where Huevos Verdes has submitted a new product, the "Cell Cleaner (TM)," a nanobiotic pseudo-virus which can enter the cells of the body, perform repairs, and neutralize any foreign matter. Cancer, diseases, colds and so forth could be a thing of the past... Assuming the Cell Cleaner is passed by the Science Court. In the end, a further-research permit is denied, helped along by Miranda Sharifi's insulting opening statement, in which she accuses jury (some of whom would have been on her side) of shortsightedness, stupidity and elitism. It appears that Miranda wanted to lose the case, but Diana cannot imagine why. After the court is adjourned, Diana follows Miri on a gravrail to New York state.

Drew Arlen returns to La Isla, not only to meet with Miranda Sharifi, but to receive statistical feedback on his concerts as gathered by the Supers; the Supers are using him as a form of societal control, attempting to engender specific behavioral tendencies via his concerts. ("I have stopped calling myself an artist.") At the end of his visit he is commissioned to create a concert, "The Warrior," that promotes risk-taking behavior as desirable. It also becomes clear that his love for Miri has dulled over the years; in order to overcome an embarrassing inconvenience, he resorts to thoughts of the woman he truly loves: Leisha Camden, the woman who became a foster mother to him.

Billy Washington lives in East Oleanta, a Liver community in New York. Though he is quite old, he has become foster father to an eleven-year-old Liver child, Lizzie Francy, whose intelligence outweighs her Liver conditioning, to the consternation of her mother Annie. East Oleanta is suffering something of a crisis: rabid raccoons have been seen nearby, a dangerous proposition when the only source of medical assistance, the medunit, might break down at any time. Eventually, East Oleanta mayor Jack Sawicki organizes a hunt for the raccoons; Billy's hunting partner Doug Kane suffers a heart attack, while Billy himself is menaced by one of the raccoons. He is saved by a beam of light, projected by a girl with a head too large for her body and black hair in a red ribbon. She provides medical assistance to Kane and takes care of the raccoons.

Unfortunately, Lizzie comes down with a sickness shortly thereafter; Billy is informed that nothing can be done, since the gravrail is broken, the medunit is broken, and none of his elected officials are available. This time he is saved by a donkey-gone-native calling herself Victoria Turner. When Lizzie recovers the next morning, she is immediately full of questions for "Vicki" (Diana) to answer. "Dr. Turner" also explains the constant breakdowns: a nanomachine dissembler, tuned to attack an alloy named duragem that is used in just about all modern machinery, is loose across the nation. The donkeys didn't release it—in fact, no one knows who released it (the Supers have discovered that it had multiple epicenters)—and (assuming they are able) decide it is best not to stop it.

In Seattle, Drew Arlen is taken to a now-seized illegal genetic-engineering lab by members of the GSEA. They show him some of the products of the research, in the hopes that he will act as a messenger to Huevos Verdes and explain the GSEA's stance: that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and the Cell Cleaner's magic, too advanced for the donkeys to comprehend, is too dangerous to allow. He also reveals that holoterminals throughout the Adirondack Mountains have been seeded with subliminal messages regarding "Eden," a technological haven that, supposedly, donkeys don't know about. After his concert (during which he almost dies due to the aircar being struck by the duragem dissembler), he flies to Huevos Verdes to force a showdown with Miri; Leisha manages to blackmail her way on board. On the way, the plane contracts the duragem dissembler and goes down over upcountry Georgia. Though Leisha and Drew survive the crash, they are ambushed by a grass-roots militia, and Leisha killed by its leader, Jimmy Francis Marion Hubbley. Drew is taken captive and finds himself in an illegal genemod lab, now the Francis Marion Freedom Outpost. Hubbley is a leader in a "revolution" that aims to throw off all foreign oppressors—in this case, anyone genemod—and, among other things, released the duragem dissembler to do it.

Diana is attempting to learn all she can about Eden, which she is sure is a SuperSleepless creation. To that end, she bribes Lizzie access to donkey education software; within a month, Lizzie is hacking into donkey-corporation databases. She also follows Billy on one of his forest sojourns, hoping he will lead her to Eden. When the distribution warehouse fails to open for two weeks in a row, the Livers break in... Only to discover that the age of prosperity is truly over, as the warehouse is empty. Billy hides "Vicki" away from the mob for fear that she, obviously a donkey, will be harmed in reprisal. Mayor Sawicki, under the influence of "The Warrior," proposes a bold plan to travel eight miles through snowy mountains to the nearest town (Cogansville) and bring back food; Billy joins the expedition. Though the expedition is successful, the group is jumped by a group of stomps, several members slain (including Mayor Sawicki), and most of the food stolen. Diana, sickened not only by this tragedy but by Lizzie's analysis that the duragem dissembler was released from Eden, calls in the GSEA. Agents arrive within the hour, seize the illegal genemod lab, and blow it up to prevent anything else from escaping; but Diana discovers that this lab was not, and could not have been, Eden.

Drew is in captivity with the Francis Marion underground militia for 67 days. During that time he starts to realize just how little of the master plan Miranda has confided in him. He also discovers a coup attempt brewing against Jimmy Hubbley, and uses it to lure his bodyguard (who is in on the plan) to her death. Simultaneously the coup actually goes off, and in the chaos Drew negotiates to be left behind while the remnants of the cell flees with the help of the United States Army. Drew gets to a terminal and places a call for help... To the GSEA.

In East Oleanta, Lizzie is once again ill, with something the medunit cannot diagnose or cure. Billy, moved by "Vicki's" love for Lizzie, decides to take them both, as well as Annie, to Eden to see if the large-headed girl with the red ribbon can do anything. Miranda allows them in, even though Diana's admittance alerts the GSEA, and injects all four with the Cell Cleaner. When the GSEA agents arrive, accompanied by Drew Arlen, the two have a bitter fight over whether Miranda has the right to choose for 175 million Americans, only to be put in their place by Billy Washington. "Don't you see, it don't matter who should control [this technology], them? It only matters who can?"

However, Miranda's closing words, spoken to Diana (who is also under arrest) suggest a deeper conspiracy: "More in the syringe." After extensive medical surveillance, Diana reunites with the Francys just in time to catch a time-delay broadcast by Miranda Sharifi, explaining what she meant. The "Change syringe" contains a set of nano-engineered machinery that totally remodels the human body on a cellular level. Anyone injected will be infused with nanotubules leading inward from the skin, which are capable of dissembling organic matter on a molecular level. They are also infused with bacteriorhodopsin, allowing photosynthesis. It is now possible for a human being to lie on the ground, in the sunlight, for thirty minutes, and absorb all the energy and nutrients they need for a 24-hour period. Odds and ends include nitrogen-fixing microorganisms, mechanisms to keep the digestive tract in working order in the absence of "mouth food," and of course the Cell Cleaner itself. "You are now autotrophic," Miranda ends the broadcast. "You now are free."

Billy, now spry and jaunty, has joined the Francys and Vicki Turner (who has legally changed her name) as a member of a mass migration to West Virginia, where Miranda Sharifi is imprisoned at the Oak Mountain Maximum-Security Federal Prison. Annie is having trouble with empty-nest syndrome; children, even those as young as thirteen-year-old Lizzie, don't need their parents anymore, having been rendered practically invulnerable to disease, starvation and casual injury. Likewise, the Livers no longer need the donkeys, many of whom are moving to snatch up the Change syringes for themselves. The nation is returning to a network of small, localized governments, with some groups (such as East Oleanta) making the transition far more smoothly, while the federal government simply stays uninvolved. Vicki, for her part, is worried that the underground resistance movement which released the duragem dissembler will use the transitioning period to its advantage by arming the Livers and encouraging violence against donkeys, who are the few people still insisting that America exists. Fortunately, Vicki's dismay is unfounded: when the underground rebellion, now calling itself "Will and Idea," begin to bomb the Liver migration for their adherence to the abomination Miranda, the prison's Y-shield protects everyone from destruction on the order of the President. Vicki is then allowed (on Miranda's request) to enter the prison and speak to Miranda personally. She explains that the Supers have decided to take a hands-off approach, to prevent the people from becoming too dependent on them; Miranda will serve out her sentence, while Vicki returns to her family amongst the Livers.

Drew Arlen tries to visit Miranda in jail, only to be told that, though he has judicial clearance to see the prisoner, the prisoner will not see him.