Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful by Arwen Elys Dayton
Arwen Elys Dayton’s latest novel, Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful (2018) is a novel comprised of six linked stories, each taking part in a different point in humanity’s future, beginning “A few years from now,” leapfrogging to various points beyond, and ending when “They have left us far behind.” Dayton doesn’t specify the precise year or time period, letting the pace and scale of scientific advancements inform the reader’s imagination. Her teenaged protagonists each experience some kind of alteration (or lack thereof) and must cope with backlash, acceptance, or rejection of their changing selves and the significance those changes have on the world around them.
“Matched Pair” — An affecting story about twins Evan and Julia Weary, who are quite ill, and whose parents have decided that one surviving child, whose life will be improved by harvesting vital organs from the other, is better than two dead children. It’s not an easy decision, and this story explores Evan’s conflicted feelings about the procedure in contrast with Julia’s acquiescence to their fates, along with the stress this causes on their parents (and their individual coping mechanisms, too).
Dayton takes Evan and Julie’s “twinness” to another level, however, revealing a bond between them that defies medical science and human mortality. “Matched Pair” is a good exploration of the bond between siblings, but the appearance of anti-science Reverend Tad Tadd felt shoehorned into the story in order to set him up as the boogeyman-presence which echoes throughout every story within Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful. And this tale’s resolution needed a touch more explanation in order to clarify what, exactly, was happening.
“St. Ludmilla” — Milla, enjoying coffee in her favorite café, sees a fellow classmate, Gabriel. For reasons that will become apparent later, his appearance fills her with anger and shame; she follows him outside, waits until a speeding bus approaches, and, well…
The bus struck him and the sound was of something both firm and wet colliding very hard. Maybe like what you’d hear if you stomped on stalks of celery with heavy boots, or if you dropped a half-melted bag of ice from a second-story window onto concrete.
Flash back to a week earlier, the night after Milla had a big date that didn’t go as planned, and the reception at her sheltered Episcopal high school is an intense mix of slut-shaming and ostracization. How these two events converge, and how they resolve, involves a fascinating exploration of adolescence, identity, body shaming, consent, ownership of self, peer pressure, and so much more. If a life can be saved and improved through technology or integrated prosthetics, Dayton asks via Milla’s headmaster, shouldn’t that be more important than where those organs and limbs came from? If a person’s innate sense of self still remains intact, then does it matter if their outward appearance is made of skin or “meshline?” It’s an excellent reminder that the novel is not titled anything like Smarter, Kinder, and More Generous; overall, I found “St. Ludmilla” to be richly layered and complex, and easily the best component of the novel.
“The Reverend Mr. Tad Tadd’s Love Story” — Elsie Tadd is the daughter of Reverend Tadd, a previously-established fanatical opponent of any type of any type of genetic or surgical modification that would save and improve lives, since his view is that “that’s not how God made me.” The last thing Elsie remembers is being in Africa, protesting outside a hospital with her mother, younger brother, father, and others; then, she awakes in the basement of a church, where her father makes some stunning revelations.
I wasn’t a fan of this story: it mainly seems to serve the purpose of showing how quickly a fanatic can switch allegiances from one extreme ideal to another with little consideration for the people around them or their own internal logic. The secondary purpose here is to introduce Elsie Tadd, who will become a figurehead in her own way as scientific modifications advance. There are bits and bobs of worldbuilding here, but overall, it’s a story that doesn’t quite gel beyond its monster-movie finish.
“Eight Waded” — Alexios is, in many ways, barely recognizable as human. His parents made choices during his embryonic development that resulted in him being born with a larger brain capacity and increased intelligence, a weaker body, and drastically altered limb structure, all of which made living anywhere but within and under water nearly impossible for Alexios. He lives in a seaside lab facility for the Blessed Cures Consortium, communicating with dolphins and manatees also under the facility’s authority, creating anagrams and visualizing how efficiently a given person might fit in a box. As part of his mandatory education, Alexis meets Frances, a young intern with unorthodox views on what sort of information Alexis ought to be receiving; namely, the truth about the world that helped shape him, and what’s going on outside the walls of the lab.
Russia is starting to mine the solar system, and Americans are going to be getting their unicorn horns polished and designing children with claws and rainbow auras.
“Eight Waded” presents a clear sense of the cause-and-effect of the decisions parents make for their children without the child’s consent, and the ways in which their children defy those decisions in order to establish themselves as independent people, for good or ill. It also hints at trouble to come, as Americans focus more and more on superficial or frivolous uses of body alteration and the rest of the world (namely, Russia) look for more practical and utilitarian uses. Alexios’ point of view is strongly represented, his character is well-developed, and I appreciated the ways in which Dayton shifts perspective in addition to timeline here.
“California” — Jake and Kostya, fugitives from various authorities, are fleeing across Siberia in hopes of somehow making their way to America. Accompanying them is Yulia, a university student who wants to know more about them and their decidedly unique circumstances. As Jake reveals his past to her, the reader learns that Jake isn’t just from another continent, but another time entirely, and has been through more than one kind of transformative experience.
Initially quite unlikeable (to put it mildly), Jake is a potentially risky character, especially considering how he lived his life before everything changed, but there’s a clear and understandable shift between that Jake and the boy who escapes with Kostya. The differences in Russian and American approaches to modifications, hinted at in “Eight Waded,” are brought to stark light here, and it’s painful to think of what Jake, Kostya, and others go through against their will. The story ends on a question mark, and by the end, I was so invested in this pair of boys that I wanted a more conclusive idea of how their journey ended.
“Curiosities” — Luck and Starlock are Protos living on a “Rez” near the Rocky Mountains, their lives monitored and guided down to the minutest detail by the humans who keep their tiny community in near-perfect isolation. Though the two teens love one another, they’re forbidden from being together because they don’t look alike, and the humans insist that Rez inhabitants must maintain genetic purity. But everything changes when their human guards’ body modifications suddenly fail and the Proto Authority can’t be reached by radio. Luck, her intended mate Rocky, Starlock, and his intended mate Moonlight, strike out for the nearest civilization in hopes of finding answers, and what they discover is both surprising and thought-provoking.
This story is the longest, and not my favorite, but not the weakest of the collection, either. It’s interesting to see the changes wrought on the human species, and I appreciated that Dayton made a distinct point of referencing the rest of the world’s reaction to unchecked American modification of the human genetic code. There’s some potentially heavy stuff here, but there just wasn’t enough of any of it — context about how the world has changed, information about the warring factions Luck’s group encounters, or even just the Proto enclave itself — to make the story feel complete.
I think my earlier point about “California” and its ending is indicative of my reaction to Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful as a whole: characters and stories that I grew to care about deserve more time, more space on the page. Dayton’s focus seems to be on the procedures and the leaps-and-bounds technology undergoes, dragging laws and societies behind them, and using the characters and the crises they experience as snapshots and illustrations of those changes. It’s a mostly-well-executed concept, but there were a few times that I thought her characters needed more attention or closure.
Dayton’s commentary on human nature and our seeming inability to do anything in moderation feels quite accurate. I thought her projections of what people could potentially achieve were well-thought-out, and in general, her use of those projections to explore the unchanging nature of the human spirit. Additionally, her treatment of American vs. other countries’ handling on genetic and physical modifications, and the brief mentions of class disparity, were solid, though I would have liked to see more discussion of class and economic availability of procedures and resources to non-privileged people (or lack thereof) and potential friction resulting from that divide. All in all, though, Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful is a thoughtful collection of linked stories.