Science fiction author Nancy Kress is best known for her novella Beggars in Spain, about children who are genetically engineered to never need sleep. Kress says that she was inspired to write the story—which she later expanded into a series of novels—out of sheer jealousy.
“I know people who manage to get by with four or five hours of sleep each night, and function just fine,” Kress says in Episode 215 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “And I am enormously jealous. They get more life than I do.”
Considering the road Beggars in Spain had to publication, Kress could’ve used the extra hours. Early drafts of the story faced constant rejection.
“The first story I wrote was completely dreadful, and it was rejected by everybody,” Kress says. “Robert Silverberg rejected it twice, because I hadn’t realized that he had changed editorial positions, and I sent him the manuscript at his new position, and he wrote back, ‘I didn’t like this the first time, and I still don’t like it.’”
It took Kress 13 years to get the story into print. Her big break came when fellow science fiction author Bruce Sterling urged her to include more economics in her fiction, which made her realize that the competition between workers who need sleep and those who don’t should be the driving force of the story.
“The central economic question of Beggars in Spain is ‘What do the haves owe the have-nots?’” she says. “That’s the question that Tony asks Leisha over and over, and that she’s trying to grapple with, and come up with a philosophy of why the haves owe the have-nots things.”
When the story was first published in 1992, the idea of genetically engineered children who never need to sleep seemed plausible. But Kress says that subsequent research has revealed that this is unlikely to happen any time soon.
“A lot more goes on during sleep than we thought, and I don’t think you could really eliminate it,” she says. “For one thing, we’ve found out that, during sleep, certain toxins are flushed out of the brain, and they go down the vagus nerve, which connects to the gut, and eventually get flushed out of the body. We didn’t know that was going on in 1992.”
Listen to our complete interview with Nancy Kress in Episode 215 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above), and check out some highlights from the discussion below. You can also read Beggars in Spain, along with 20 other science fiction stories, in the recent collection The Best of Nancy Kress.
Nancy Kress on discovering science fiction:
“When I was 14 I had my first boyfriend, and I would go to his house after school—he was studying to be a concert pianist. He would practice on the piano, and I would hang adoringly over the piano. Well, I’m tone deaf, I can hang adoringly for maybe 10 minutes. Then I would edge away to the bookshelves that were in the room, and I’d pull his father’s books off [the shelves], and among them was Arthur Clarke’s Childhood’s End. I started reading it—I’d never seen any science fiction before—and I was hooked, I was in love, and not with the pianist.”
Nancy Kress on feminism:
“My stories are seldom overtly feminist. They don’t deal with patriarchy, they don’t deal with lack of power because of being a woman. Sally Gourley in ‘Out of All Them Bright Stars’ is powerless because of her class, not her gender, and I tend to deal more with that. So feminists who award, for instance, the Tiptree tend to pretty much ignore me. I put females in central roles, but they are often conflicted females, they are often struggling with interpersonal relationships or with the world around them. They are not kickass heroines. In fact, I don’t have kickass heroes either.”
Nancy Kress on stardom:
“Ellen Datlow … was my guide for a lot of this, because she was publishing me regularly in Omni, and I was clearly so wet behind the ears. We’d walk into a bar, we’d sit down, and within minutes Gardner Dozois and Roger Zelazny and everyone else would have gravitated to Ellen, and she would introduce me. And to say that I was starstruck is to put in mildly. And of course starstruck-ness wears off, because you discover that the stars are just people—some of them are wonderful people, but they’re just people. And I guess I was a little old at 30 to be discovering this, but I had led a very sheltered life.”
Nancy Kress on being a writer:
“A writer has to have certain qualities. They have to be able to spend a lot of time alone. In fact, they have to prefer it. They have to have an imagination, obviously. They have to be open to improving their craft, and not be closed-minded, saying, ‘Well, this is perfect and I’m not going to change it in any way.’ … And they also have to be resilient. This is not a career for the faint-hearted. There will be rejections, there will be misunderstood stories, there will be bad reviews. There will be, at times, slumping sales. … You have to be a resilient person.”