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Song of a Traveller: the courtesan's salon - [Book Reviews] "Beggars in Spain" and "Between Giants"
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[Book Reviews] "Beggars in Spain" and "Between Giants"
After hearing or reading that Nancy Kress's "Beggars in Spain" was an answer to "Atlas Shrugged", I picked it up. I found it just about as convincing as "Atlas Shrugged", in that I seriously questioned the thinking of just about every character at some point. ("Argh, no, don't do that!" Heh.) But it was meta-interesting to me because they're not that different! I was surprised that it got reviewed as a refutation when the works were to me something like 80% similar. Kress is easily a better writer than Rand, though, her characters are far less flat and one-dimensional. The conceit is that we have genetic engineering, and some small number of people have their kids designed so they don't need to sleep. It turns out that not needing to sleep is really great. You get more done, of course, but also apparently it predisposes you to cheerfulness and intelligence. So there's society grappling with people who are all superachievers because they are smart and have more time than the rest of humanity that still sleeps. Some sleeping people hate them all, and some of the sleepless hate being hated, so they build a Gulch Sanctuary away from the rest of the world who tries to pull them down for just being better. Like Rand, in the book, the sleepless are just better than an average sleeping human. All of them. And this is substantially if not perfectly correllated with moral rectitude; you can tell who's a good person and who is not pretty much right off. The great philosopher that everyone loves in the book prioritizes the importance of freely chosen contracts as the engine of society, and connects spirituality and fulfilment with one's ability to produce and trade. There's a lot of discussion about whether or not the superior people (mostly but not entirely sleepless) owe others anything.

The Dagny main protagonist sleepless supersmart good at everything thin pretty blonde woman exective lawyer is an adherent of that philosopher. And she has a non-engineered twin sister who is not tall, thin, blonde, pretty, or sleepless. Their relationship where the Dagny is perfect at everything (by the standards of mainstream society) and her sister is a fuckup is one of the points of narrative tension. I recommended the book to ilcylic because I want to discuss the ending with him; I'm still chewing on it. I didn't like it -- I would really like it to be more common but that hasn't been how that's gone in my life and so it was hard for that to ring true to me. But I identified much more with the Dagny than any other character despite our obvious points of non-resemblance, and that's pretty uncomfortable. (This was not the case for me with "Atlas Shrugged"; I would have made very different choices than the Dagny there, but I could easily see myself making pretty similar choices to the Dagny here, though I would hope I would be a far more compassionate and understanding sister.) I suspect that the Dagny's final realization illustrates some of the social problems I have had with friends who thought I was perfect and good at everything and they don't feel that way. I certainly do not feel that I am perfect and good at everything, but that's a difficult navigation when you get into disproportionate social privilege and I haven't always handled that as adeptly as I would like. And I don't like that answer, but that doesn't mean that's not what's going on. Four out of five navel-gazes; I would particularly recommend it to/welcome the opinions of X-Men fans and anyone who's read "Atlas Shrugged".

I also read one of the starker history books I've ever read... when prepping for a potential Latvian trip later this year, I came across "Between Giants: The Battle for the Baltics in World War II". I wanted an introduction to recent Latvian history, and I got one, but oof. I liked* it so much that I got Mayhem a copy too, but oof. Essentially, imagine this: it is early 1940. You are stuck between Stalin's Russia and Hitler's Germany. They are about to have a fight in your yard. You cannot hope to match the military power of either side. No one wants to help you diplomatically; they don't want that fight either. What do you do? (Here is what happened.) So it's a thoroughly difficult read about hard choices and terrible fallout. If you're a fan of alternative history, it's rich fodder for trying to imagine ways out of that Scylla-and-Charybdis... but the people who were highly vested in the best possible outcome there paid a terrible price for essentially being there at all. Worth reading, absolutely, and I'll be thinking about it for a long time wishing I had better answers. Five o.O moments of sheer horror and furious thinking out of five.

This entry was originally posted at http://ivy.dreamwidth.org/369141.html and has comment count unavailable comments there. Please feel free to comment on either site; comments rock.

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docstrange From: docstrange Date: March 1st, 2014 11:58 pm (UTC) (Link)
Grah! I am sure we're two of the people who recommended it, but can't think of how it's a refutation of Atlas Shrugged. Maybe in that the elites/donkeys don't stop working to support the poor/livers? Anyhow...

It is a better image of what's happened. And, wow oh wow do I wish I didn't need sleep.
docstrange From: docstrange Date: March 2nd, 2014 12:03 am (UTC) (Link)
Also there are really 3 (broadly painted) social layers in Kress's book - the sleepless, who become a feared/hated/needed ultra-elite akin to a few of Rand's front-and-center characters, the "donkeys" (the smart, educated workers who are more like Rand's sort of ingenious inventor and general for-real worker, including the politicians who become dependent on the votes of the idle non-rich), and the "livers" who are the masses who realize they can vote money from the treasury.
tezliana From: tezliana Date: March 2nd, 2014 12:52 am (UTC) (Link)
Yes. thewronghands, keep reading! The second book continues the development of the class divisions. The donkey/liver gap becomes as pronounced as the sleepless/sleeper gap. The whole series is both highly interesting and unsettling.
thewronghands From: thewronghands Date: March 2nd, 2014 02:15 am (UTC) (Link)
I will keep reading! No one has even said donkeys or livers yet... I read the novella and not the novel, so I'm sure I'm missing stuff.
docstrange From: docstrange Date: March 2nd, 2014 02:20 am (UTC) (Link)
O dear! Well, all 3 books are yours for the borrowing on your next confirmed location or local appearance.
thewronghands From: thewronghands Date: March 2nd, 2014 02:26 am (UTC) (Link)
Yay, thank you! I will have to find a reason to get out to chez y'all, not like there aren't plenty of other reasons already.
thewronghands From: thewronghands Date: March 2nd, 2014 02:25 am (UTC) (Link)

Totally spoiling the books for myself but that's okay

As the books develop, are there ever any sleepers who are comparable to the sleepless in terms of achievement/power, who are generationally parallel? That is to say, do the sleepless become the sole and displacing ultra-elite/is it *that much* of an advantage over everyone else, or is it just that they are disproportionately represented in those circles as opposed to in the general population?
docstrange From: docstrange Date: March 2nd, 2014 02:34 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Totally spoiling the books for myself but that's okay

There is no doubt the best of the (otherwise genetically engineered) sleepless are better than their sleeper counterparts - they are 'up' all the time and that alone is a massive plus. But the otherwise plain sleepless aren't so fantastic, and there appear genetically-engineered sleepers who are as good as some of the sleepless. Also (spoiler) it's not impossible for the sleepless build their own betters over time. But being sleepless turns out to have a lot more advantages than at first flush.

But as the sleepless withdraw, a lot of very spooky-familiar social change plays out among the elites/working world and non-workers.
thewronghands From: thewronghands Date: March 2nd, 2014 02:14 am (UTC) (Link)
Several folks recommended it to me... IIRC, it was an online review that said the "refutation of Atlas Shrugged" thing, but my memory is poor here and so I can't remember where I heard that or from whom. (So I totally vagued it up there, so as to not misattribute.) And yeah, I'd give up sleep in a heartbeat if I didn't need it... I'd get so much more done!
brainwane.dreamwidth.org From: brainwane.dreamwidth.org Date: March 2nd, 2014 02:32 am (UTC) (Link)
I know that I've mentioned (http://www.harihareswara.net/sumana/2010/08/23/0) Beggars as a response to Atlas Shrugged in case that helps.
thewronghands From: thewronghands Date: March 2nd, 2014 02:52 am (UTC) (Link)
Ah, maybe that was it! Thank you!
randomdreams From: randomdreams Date: March 2nd, 2014 12:18 am (UTC) (Link)
To some extent, vampire novels and even harry potter have a similar plotline: the people with some special, intrinsic characteristic all go off and hang out in their own place, and the reader is invited to identify with them rather than the teeming masses that we are all actually a part of.
thewronghands From: thewronghands Date: March 2nd, 2014 02:17 am (UTC) (Link)
Yeah, there's definitely some escapism by pretending that you are special going on there (and in many, many genre novels). This one made it easy for me to identify with the protagonist, since she is essentially a grownup Lisa Simpson who never needed to sleep and that was totally me as a kid. I would have been Hermione in the same way. So I'll be interested to see if that continues now that she's, y'know, out of law school and an adult in a complex world.
etcet From: etcet Date: March 2nd, 2014 01:24 am (UTC) (Link)
Did you read the *novel* or *novella* version of BiS? (I have only read the shorter one)

(I've also read the Rand, and, frankly, BiS has it all over AS if only because it's shorter than GALT'S EPIC GODDAMNED FUCKING MONOLOGUE OMG *ahem*)

More detailed response from me later; I am running out the door for a hockey game... yes, despite all the medical fuckery my body insists on displaying. I have ass to kick and no time for its failure and bullshit. :)
thewronghands From: thewronghands Date: March 2nd, 2014 02:20 am (UTC) (Link)
Novella -- I too have only read the shorter one. I knocked it out last night before bed. Ha ha only serious, I think that entire novella really might have been shorter than Galt's monologue. [giggling] It was like 90 screens on my ereader... that's not very long! Did you count? It might literally be true.

I understand from above commenters that the series here gets better and more nuanced/developed as one continues, so I will continue and see where she goes with it.

Don't die at hockey!
etcet From: etcet Date: March 2nd, 2014 04:44 am (UTC) (Link)
Galt's blather lasts something like two hundred pages. It's absolutely ridiculous.

Didn't die, but didn't win. ah well.
digitalsidhe From: digitalsidhe Date: March 3rd, 2014 02:15 am (UTC) (Link)
I'm not sure what could convince me to read Atlas Shrugged, but Wikipedia to the rescue: the last graf of the "plot summary" section says it was 70 pages in the original printing. I doubt it would change more than 10% either way in subsequent printings (unless we're talking about a large print edition or something like that).
thewronghands From: thewronghands Date: March 3rd, 2014 03:05 am (UTC) (Link)
I read it originally in college or grad school, can't remember which, and was thoroughly unimpressed. Many years later I dated a libertarian and read it again to see if I had a different impression. Nope, still thoroughly unimpressed. This has saddened several of my partners since apparently I make a pretty good heroine there, except for the whole part where I disagree intransigently with its philosophy. :/ (Well, and am not a sexual submissive and do not want to be owned.) So I'm not a fan of the book, but I keep picking libertarians, so apparently I am a fan of fans of the book.
etcet From: etcet Date: March 3rd, 2014 11:41 am (UTC) (Link)
It sure seemed like two hundred at the time! ;-)
arielstarshadow From: arielstarshadow Date: March 3rd, 2014 12:19 am (UTC) (Link)
I read the full BiS novel MANY years ago, and confess I didn't find it very compelling. I think I got it and the books that follow it at a used bookstore, and it was back in the day where I'd read a book all the way to the end even if I didn't much care for it.

I can also say that I found the book/s that came after it (one or two? I can't remember) even less compelling, and my fuzzy memory is telling me I finally got annoyed enough at them that I stopped reading.
kinfae From: kinfae Date: March 5th, 2014 03:53 pm (UTC) (Link)
I kind of struggle with books like this, too (and have read both).

Part of the problem is that I objectively know, per evaluation and testing, that at various measured points throughout my life, I was objectively smarter/faster/more connective than 99.9% of the population of my age.

And after that, it's a hard thing when people try to say "No, you're all part of the masses, everyone is the same." Because I know that's not the case. And even at my .1% level, I met people who are so far beyond me that I assume the curve increases in startling ways as you go up.

And I also have experienced what it's like to be in groups of all really, really smart people. My time working with three-letter-soup was one of the most intellectually rewarding of my life. We were, essentially, working on a small island sanctuary, and it was great.

So yeah. All men are not created equal. We don't talk about it a lot because it sounds arrogant, but it is absolutely true. All men are not created with the same intelligence, or intestinal fortitude. And those gaps increase as people with similar qualities find each other to make similar babies with.

Yes, no one is perfect and good at everything. Yes, individuals all have unique and awesome qualities, but we pretend that they make up for everything else, when they really don't.
kinfae From: kinfae Date: March 5th, 2014 03:54 pm (UTC) (Link)
however, I haven't read the other two books either, so I'm going to take that on.
22 forks or fork, exec?
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