It's 2008, 20 Minutes into the Future. Leisha Camden is a Born Winner: her daddy's rich, her mama's good-looking, she's got blonde hair, blue eyes... and the latest genemods, the one that make you not need to sleep. This particular genemod is a very new technology, and Leisha is only the 21st human being ever born with it. The other 19 are healthy, sane, cheerful and incredibly smart; all of them go on to become luminaries in their fields. The 20th was shaken to death by parents who hadn't reckoned on a baby that cried 24/7.
A Cyber Punk novel by way of Genetic Engineering Is the New Nuke, the Beggars trilogy has a lot of technology in it, obviously; in addition to "genemods", as they're called, there's Cold Fusion, invented by a guy named Kenzo Yagai. He also invented Yagaiism, which Kress admits to having based on Objectivism. The particular emphasis of Yagaiism is that all contact should be mutually beneficial: if you don't get anything out of helping someone, it's not just stupid but immoral to do so. Leisha, a devout Yagaiist, agrees with this idea... but isn't always able to square that away with the fact that, if she meets a beggar in Spain, it would be just as wrong not to give him a dollar. Hmm. Does Not Compute.
The other emphasis of the trilogy, the real emphasis, is prejudice. What Measure Is a Non-Human? Every single character in the series is asking this, and what's interesting is that every single character in the series has a different way of defining 'human.' To most people, the Sleeplessintelligent, overachieving, blessed with superb emotional stabilityaren't human... especially when it's discovered that the Sleeplessness gene unlocks some sort of radical Healing Factor, making the Sleepless functionally immortal. To the Sleepless, Muggles aren't human: not because they have to waste a third of their life in comatose nonproductivity, but because they prefer to Wangst and bask in the culture of entitlement rather than apply themselves. With Fantastic Racism flying in both directions, it isn't long before open hostilities and byzantine plans begin to sprout.
And then things go really Off the Rails.
This series features examples of:
- Artistic License Biology:
- Science currently believes that long-term sleeplessness is impossible, as sleep serves as a necessary pressure valve for a number of mental, emotional and physiological processes; for instance, mood imbalance is associated with sleep deprivation. Kress handwaves this via Insane Troll Logic ("Exactly — remove sleep entirely and the mood disorders will disappear with it!"), but since sleeplessness is a Necessary Weasel we put up with it.
- At one point, while introducing the dangers of Genetic Engineering, we see genetically engineered grass kept in a glass prison. We're told that it's so super-capable that if released, it would outcompete every other plant on the planet and within a few years nothing would live on earth except this grass and a few large trees, which would be dying. A bit of Fridge Logic ensued when you consider that this means it's better at living in the deserts than a cactus, better than living in brackish swamps than a mangrove, and somehow better at living in the ocean than kelp and algae, all in one plant... except it almost happened for real. Though instead of "everything except this grass" it would have been "everything except this alcohol-producing slime."
- Bread and Circuses: The entire post-Y-energy society functions this way. The Sleepless are the intellectuals, the "donkeys" are genemod Muggles and bureaucrats, and the "Livers" are the remaining 90%: the mental scrapheaps who are told they are the top of the pile because they get to live lives of "aristo leisure" with donkeys doing all the work for them.
- BrotherSister Incest: Miri's regard for her brother Tony seems to be a bit more than familial. The exact motivations behind this are never explained, and in the end nothing actually happens between them.
- Courtroom Episode: Volume two of the first book.
- Creator Provincialism: There are a grand total of two scenes in the entire trilogy that take place outside of America.
- Cursed with Awesome: Sleeplessness is perceived that way, due to the immense amount of Fantastic Racism leveled at it. The Superbrights even more so. Almost a deconstruction of Super Intelligence: they're so smart that they think in clouds of word association, or even in pure mathematics. Their bodies have to be "revved to the edge of biochemical hysteria" to support all that grey matter, leading to rampant stuttering, poor motor control and terrible difficulties with verbal language. And, of course, they get Fantastic Racism leveled against them by their own creators.
- Dewey Defeats Truman: The first novel was released in 1994. Just about the only bet it missed was the rise of Microsoft, but seeing as how Kevin Baker, the first Sleepless, is a software genius and would have been (out)competing Bill Gates' empire at some point, that miss becomes glaring.
- Fantastic Racism: Everywhere, best organized through the "We-Sleep" movement started by Calvin Hawke. One of the interesting bits of its presentation, though (and the reason for the "X-Men" analogy), is that, unusually, the hated minority is also the power class.
- The Fettered: Leisha is (or tries to be) a good person and has enormous faith in the American Political System.
- Freudian Trio: Name-checked in reference to the evolved American society. The Sleepless run the economy, genemod "donkeys" live in secure enclaves and run for office, and the "Livers", the unwashed masses who form 92% of the country, live on Bread and Circuses provided by those elected officials and powered by cheap Y-energy. Amusingly, while the donkeys are Idle Rich, it's the Livers who are told (and believe!) they are the actual Idle Rich: after all, the donkeys serve them, don't they?
- Generation Xerox: Two generations apart, a boy named Tony dies and creates a rift between the super-intelligent and the Muggles.
- Good Lawyers, Good Clients: Averted. The only client we ever see Leisha take on is a Spear Carrier for the local Batman Gambit.
- Hoist by Their Own Petard: The most basic principle of Jennifer Sharifi's — excuse me, Sanctuary's — philosophy is that the smaller, smarter community has no obligation to serve the larger, dumber one. To prevent her community of Sleepless from falling under the domination of Sleepers, she commissions the Superbrights — a smaller, smarter community serving her larger, dumber one. And then it happens again the third book, and it's even messier.
- Hot for Teacher: Drew Arlen has the hots for Leisha, who is an odd combination of adoptive mother, teacher and best friend.
- Intimidating Revenue Service: The ultimate antagonist in the first book — as the "Sleepless" are smarter than the smartest human and can work twice as many hours, this puts them in a superhuman tax bracket, meaning that whichever government holds their citizenship can claim a staggering 92% of their income.
- I Want My Jetpack: 2008 came and went and human genetic engineering is still in its infancy, to the chagrin of many young white first-worlders who want to become Übermenschen.
- Loads and Loads of Characters: the first novel alone is 88 years long; Beggars Ride ends in 2121. This is inevitable.
- Manic Pixie Dream Girl: deconstructed in the person of Cazie Sanders.
- MayDecember Romance: This can be common amongst Sleepless, as they do not age.
- Might Makes Right: One of the guiding principles of Sanctuary, when you get down to it. "We don't recognize that weakness has a moral claim on competency."
- Mohs Scale of Science Fiction Hardness: Despite being social sci-fi, the first book of the series falls pretty squarely into Type 4: the feasibility of sleeplessness is the only departure from reality, though that does branch off into the functional-immortality stuff. Later books contain a soft singularity later, but it too is brought on by a spiraling cascade of consequences stemming from the sleeplessness genemod.
- Morally Ambiguous Doctorate: Not even discussed, just taken for granted. A big theme of the series is technology running away with itself, and a key measure of various characters is how willing they are to use whatever new tech has come along, regardless of whether their goals are beneficial or not.
- Muggle Born of Mages: Six Sleepless marriages produce sleeping children during the 21st century, due to genetic regression to the mean. The five born on Sanctuary are quietly done away with.
- The Needs of the Many: Opposing this idea when they're considered the "few" is the guiding principle of Sanctuary. Of course, when they are the "many", they have no problem applying it to their own engineered offspring.
- Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!: Drew Arlen's "The Warrior" concert, which Miri ordered him to create in order to combat societal breakdown, actually makes more people join the rebel conspiracy driving that breakdown.
- Older Than They Look: Sleepless stop aging physically in their 20s or 30s.
- Replacement Goldfish: Subtext on the part of Jennifer Sharifi suggests that all her lovers are an attempt to fill the hole left by Tony Indivino.
- Space Station: The Sleepless eventually retreat to one, which they call Sanctuary.
- The Spock: All Sleepless, by virtue of being unable to sleep and thus having no access to the safety valve of the unconscious. (Seriously, Leisha dies at the age of 106. She sleeps once in her life, when she takes a drug at age 16, meaning that she never dreams for 90 years straight.)
- Stepford Smiler: All the characters to a certain extentbeing a Sleepless means being an instant celebritybut Jennifer Sharifi the most. Leisha's mother Elizabeth as well, for the short time she's in the story.
- Supporting Protagonist: The second book's central character is Miranda Sharifi. She does not narrate.
- Switching P.O.V.: The first book features primarily Leisha, with help from, in order: Susan Melling, Jordan Watrous, Jennifer Sharifi, Drew Arlen and Miri Sharifi. The second is all first-person narration from Drew, Billy Washington and Diana Covington. The third uses Lizzie Francy, Jennifer Sharifi, and Jackson and Theresa Aranow.
- Teen Genius: Lizzie Francy. (Yes, there are a gazillion Sleepless wandering around who qualify, but Lizzie is the most jarring example because she's a Liver, who are paid to be dumb and unambitious.)
- Teen Pregnancy: Decon-Recon Switch. Because of the Bio-Augmentation ubiquitous in the third book, Lizzie gets pregnant because she wants Babies Ever After, and it seems she would've played the trope straight until the first major plot twist takes things out of her hands.
- Theme Twin Naming: Leisha and Alice are both variations on the name "Alicia". The novel never mentions whether this was intentional on the part of any characters.
- Undead Tax Exemption: Averted. Sanctuary Orbital — yes, the space station — is the property of a corporation licensed in New York State, and thus subject to the IRS. Tax ratios start at 64.8% and, by the end of the book, have reached a staggering 92%.
- The Virus: Two kinds. One is for Kill Em All purposes, which Sanctuary uses in a 24-terrorist-style plot; the other is to make everyone into a Hikikomori by inducing a strong aversion to novelty (worse than it sounds, especially in times of democratic election) and is much more successful.
- Wham Line: "Do you know La Rochefoucauld on superiority? 'Le vrai moyen d'être trompé c'est de se croire plus fin que les autres.'" Trans
- What Happened to the Mouse?: a couple of prominent characters (Drew Arlen particularly, but also Richard Keller and Kevin Baker, the other two Sleepless besides Leisha who are not strongly affiliated with Sanctuary) just disappear into the ether.