Last book of 2012 for me, a good end to the year. Beggars in Spain
is the sort of sf novel that posits a basic idea and extrapolate from that the foundation to look at the ramifications and implications of this idea from all possible angles. The "high concept" idea is very simple, in the near genetic engineering create a new race of people who do not sleep. While the basic idea is simple the numerous implications and ramifications of this development are far reaching and very complex. The main point is that not spending any time on sleeping gives a person a massive amount of extra time to do more, to accomplish more with their lives. In the context of this novel the "Sleepless" people even enjoy far longer lives, good looks and higher intelligence. The emergence of this new elite race creates all kinds of tension, envy, mistrust, hate and fear between the "Sleepers" (that would be us) and the Sleepless, to the point where most of the sleepers soon migrate to an orbital, an artificial world orbiting Earth in space.
I personally suffer from occasional bouts of insomnia and this book gives me hope, though possibly a false one as it is fiction after all, speculative fiction at that. Early on in the book the author posits the idea that sleep is not actually necessary as it is a genetic leftover from the stone age when people need to find somewhere safe to sleep and hide from predators. The reparations to the body during sleep can be done just as effectively during waking hours with the help of some gene modifications. I don't know how scientifically viable this is but it is very interesting to imagine how different our lives would be without sleep.
The main characters are well developed, both protagonists and antagonists, some are quite unpredictable which is always a virtue in a novel. The "bad guys" are not evil as such, their motivation is entirely understandable, and the "good guys" are believably flawed and complex. The prose style is very accessible, my only complaint is the frequent mentions of some of the female characters' long legs. A couple of times would have sufficed I think! The themes of racial prejudice, envy, intolerance and even hypocrisy are very well presented and mirror the human foibles we come across all too often. The pacing is generally leisurely but I did not find any part dull, and the book as a whole is highly readable.
An excellent book to end the year with, and well deserves all the accolades it has garnered (the original novella from which this book is expanded upon won the Hugo Award and Nebula Award).
Best wishes for 2013!