Beggars in Spain is a novel-size expansion of a novelette under the same name. As a book, it consists of three separate but connected story segments, separated by time. The theme is transhumanism (of a sort) and human prejudice against anything “different”. It starts out in a fairly simple fashion: the development of a genetic modification which is able to remove the need for sleep (only available before birth). In the beginning only available to the very rich, it quickly produces a small but powerful group of young people who are just… better, in most regards, when compared with normal baseline humans. Their lack of need for sleep means that they are much, much more productive, and side effects of the treatment include high intelligence and (as it later develops) extremely long life spans. How does your typical person deal with something like this? With fear, segregation and violence, of course.
While it starts out as a fairly standard “oppressed minority of super-humans vs the masses” story, it gets points for not staying in that simplistic arena. The title of the book comes from the main philosophical question posed here: why should productive people help beggars? Specifically, here, why should the new Sleepless super-humans help normal humans, who are demonstrably less productive and therefore parasites (of a sort) in the Ayn Rand sense? The story follows Leisha Camden, one of the first Sleepless, as her own opinions around the question evolve. Some of the other Sleepless retreat into an armed “sanctuary”, convinced that the “Beggar” masses are hostile towards them: and they are right, in a sense. However, it’s not that simple.
The best thing here is that prejudice is examined from many angles. Baseline humans fear the Sleepless, who in turn fear them. And in both cases, that fear is not totally unfounded. There is also the recurring theme of human worth: is a “beggar” worth something to society, and should people support other people who are not as productive (and in some cases, do not even want to be productive)? There is also the matter of how the existence of a long-lived, super-intelligent subgroup of humanity might shape future society, in both good and bad.
Well worth a read.