I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles. (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).
In this future, some people need no sleep at all. Leisha Camden was genetically modified at birth to require no sleep, and her normal twin Alice is the control. Problems and envy between the sisters mirror those in the larger world, as society struggles to adjust to a growing pool of people who not only have 30 percent more time to work and study than normal humans, but are also highly intelligent and in perfect health.
The Sleepless gradually outgrow their welcome on Earth, and their children escape to an orbiting space station to set up their own society. But Leisha and a few others remain behind, preaching acceptance for all humans, Sleepless and Sleeper alike. With the conspiracy and revenge that unwinds, the world needs a little preaching on tolerance.
I read this original short story version of this title in July of this year. I was sufficiently impressed that I ordered the novelized version through interlibrary loan and I’m glad that I read both versions. Ms. Kress really managed to flesh out the ideas better when she had a bit more elbow room.
Now, I love to sleep. It is one of the basic human pleasures and when I have occasional bouts of wakefulness during the night I am pretty cranky the next day. I have never, ever wished to do without sleep (although sometimes, during particularly exciting periods of my life, I’ve declared that I’ll sleep when I’m dead). I once had a coworker who just hated the idea of sleep—like Roger Camden, father of our main character Leisha in this novel, she thought sleep was a complete waste of time. Each night, she would try to shave off minutes of sleep, working her way towards eliminating it. And she completely failed because sleep is really, really important to our health. (See Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams for an excellent discussion of these ideas). It really is the basis for avoiding illness and being able to reason and make sensible decisions.
The one thing that bothered me about the assumptions in this work was the conflation of not needing sleep with increased intelligence. It was my understanding that parents in the book could choose either/or for their genetically modified offspring. Just because a child was one of the Sleepless didn’t necessarily mean that they would be super smart or would have driving ambition. I guess those options were almost always chosen together? And much longer life was an accidental genetic change, much more likely to cause envy, in my opinion.
One other assumption annoyed me—why would being extremely smart curtail a person’s compassion? This whole idea that the rest of humanity consisted of beggars, not only not pulling their own weight, but relying on others for their support. Leisha, although she appears to be emotionally stunted, maintains that everyone has their place in the economic ecosystem, as people actually do in our world. I am left to suppose that the genes for sleep (or lack of the need for it) and/or intelligence would somehow also affect the genes for feeling emotion, not a proposition that I accept.
Despite these misgivings, I found the book to be an interesting exploration of intolerance, including taking it to the extremes to see what could happen. There is, of course, the old warning against messing around with genetics without fully realizing the consequences and then our new demographic group goes on to repeat the pattern. That particular ‘message’ is becoming a bit boring, honestly, but I still enjoy a book in which it is approached with a new twist, such as this one.
Book number 294 in my Science Fiction & Fantasy Reading Project.