Arwen Elys Dayton’s Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful explores the future of humanity through six connected stories. The tales begin in the near-present where medical advances are being used primarily to save lives. Over the course of the book, however, technology is increasingly used to complete body modifications and more. Earlier this season, we named Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful a must-read book of winter. Here, we chat with Dayton about the inspiration behind this collection, the role of belief and faith in the stories, and technology’s impact on what it means to be truly human.
Bookish: This collection explores what it means to be human in a world where technology is changing humanity every day. Do you think technology has already changed what it means to be human—perhaps in ways we don’t even realize?
Arwen Elys Dayton: It’s hard to even answer how we have changed as a result of technology because nearly every aspect of civilization has been altered in the last hundred years or so. Humans are living much longer and at a higher standard of living, on average, than they were a hundred years ago, though of course they do so in the shadow of weapons with a destructive potential unimagined by our ancestors. This longer lifespan is a dramatic shift that has allowed our population to boom and allowed us to develop every existing technology at a faster rate than would have been possible in previous eras. So the very idea of what is “a normal human lifetime” has changed completely in the course of only a handful of generations.
This is an astonishing circumstance for a writer, because there is no reason that such dramatic changes will not continue in the future. They will be different changes, in their specifics, than what we’ve previously experienced, but huge shifts nonetheless.
Bookish: The philosopher George Santayana once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” How did history play into your version of the future?
AED: Looking at the past century, we had the rise of chemical warfare, numerous genocides, religious conflict on a broad scale in the Middle East and elsewhere, and the rise, domination, and fall of the Soviet bloc. On the positive side, we had remarkable lifesaving advances in nearly every area of medicine, the birth of computer technology, the connection of the world through new, essentially unstoppable communications media, humans landing on the moon and exploring space, and democracy spreading to formerly totalitarian regimes. Life has improved in so many ways.
In Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful I got to extend those historical dichotomies into the future. The book gives us the personal, fairly intimate stories of the six protagonists. Yet I got to paint, in the background, a broad canvas of our “future history” as human modification, life extension, and even the editing of insects and crops begin to infiltrate every part of our world.
Bookish: These stories often feature the tension between medical advances and religion. What drew you to writing about that conflict?
AED: When I was a kid, I saw a news story about a girl who was around my age. She had a fatal but curable disease, and she was refusing medical treatment because such treatment went against the religious beliefs of her family. I’ve thought about that girl for decades. How could she (or her parents) be so philosophically passionate as to be willing to accept death rather than a known alternative? And yet, I also believed that she should have a choice about what was done to her, no matter the consequences. How does one reconcile those two ideas? I don’t know, and that was one of the conundrums I wanted to explore in Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful.
Bookish: How did you come up with the character of the Reverend, who is mentioned in all of the stories? What did you most want to explore through him?
AED: The Reverend Tad Tadd was a fascinating character to write because he is clearly a zealot and possibly quite crazy… and yet he changes his mind, which is something we don’t often see in zealots. I’m not saying that I agree with either of the dramatically opposed positions he takes in Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful. But I did enjoy exploring the idea that belief is, at its core, a choice. The way we see the world and the way we try to change the world are, for each of us, a personal choice, and a choice that we are not stuck with forever—we can change our minds.
Bookish: If the possibilities described in your book came true tomorrow (from moving tattoos to disease-resistant DNA), would you consider taking advantage of any of it or would you steer clear?
AED: I’d love to think that, given unlimited options for changing myself and my children, I would have strong convictions about what was acceptable and what was too much. But the truth is I’m not so sure. It’s very easy to agree with getting rid of disease and eliminating suffering, but beyond those goals, there is a vast gray area: Should we “improve” ourselves with artificially created genes? Should we take traits from other species to make ourselves hardier or more attractive? My sense is that we will come to accept these options (and many more) once we see others taking advantage of them. Philosophy and personal conviction will erode, I suspect, with familiarity.
Bookish: The final story echoes the Greek myth of Icarus, and it feels like a warning. Why did you want to include that nod to his fatal flight?
AED: There is something mesmerizing and god-like about the ability to fly, and if it were up to me, humans would absolutely evolve this physical ability. But in this book, when we get to the story you’re talking about, it turns out that the humans of the future have not built their magnificent genetic smorgasbord on a firm foundation. And so the wings melt (metaphorically) and they come tumbling down.
Bookish: Both Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series and Dhonielle Clayton’s The Belles explore humanity and beauty through the lens of body modification. Did either of these books (or any other) help to inspire your own?
AED: I read Uglies years ago and liked it very much. And William Gibson’s novels often feature characters modified with both medical and computer technology. Neal Stephenson’s do this too. However, Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful came to me by surprise. The science behind genetic modification is happening and it’s the beginning of a new, self-directed step in human evolution. I wanted to use that as the background but in the foreground I wanted to explore the emotional side, the intimate experience of living under a new “genetic regime.”
Bookish: Heavy research that went into this book—from interviewing researchers to reading hundreds of articles. Is there anything you learned that didn’t make it into the collection that you might like to explore in future novels?
AED: There were so many things that did not make it into the book! Ultimately, the novel is telling the stories of the six main characters, and there was simply not room for all the great medical tidbits and upcoming advances in bioscience. That was frustrating, to say the least. But I’ve tucked away the very weirdest and best ideas that didn’t making it into the story, and they may have new life in the new manuscript I’m working on—a companion novel to Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful.
Arwen Elys Dayton is the best-selling author of the Egyptian sci-fi thriller Resurrection and the near-future Seeker series, set in Scotland and Hong Kong. She spends months doing research for her stories. Her explorations have taken her around the world to places like the Great Pyramid at Giza, Hong Kong, the Baltic Sea, and down many scientific rabbit holes. Arwen lives with her husband and their three children on West Coast of the United States. You can visit her and learn more about her books at arwenelysdayton.com and follow @arwenelysdayton on Instagram and Facebook.