It is almost fifty years since Hamilton Smith’s laboratory discovered restriction enzymes, allowing segments of DNA to be isolated and replaced. In the decades since, we have successfully modified the genes of plants and livestock, with the first synthetic bacterial genome being created in 2010. In just the past three years, humanity has opened the door to genetically-modified, leukaemia-killing blood cells and scientists have even restored the skin of a seven-year-old boy. We’re on the verge of a grand genetic revolution, and despite the current disruptions to our politics and planet, scientific progress is only accelerating. Yet it is fiction which helps us grasp these advances, allowing us to understand just who—or what—we are becoming, so I was excited to review Arwen Elys Dayton’s latest, gene-themed novel, Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful. With a focus on the social effects of these radical technologies, Dayton’s work could help us comprehend a very real, and very pressing development: as the future-minded theorist Jeremy Rifkin once noted, “The devil is already at the door, cleverly disguised as an engineer.”
With a subject too large to limit to a single narrative, Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful is presented as an anthology, flowing through a series of stories told by individual teenagers. These tales are set all over the planet, taking place in North America, Greece, Russia, and even the asteroid belt, with technology progressing from organ transplants to the total transformation of humanity itself. Witnessing these changes through the (genetically enhanced) eyes of adolescents grounds the narrative and allows for a range of entertaining, and heartbreaking, scenarios; the first stories, for example, are centred around disabled protagonists, and waste no time in showing the hostility and discrimination they endure simply for undergoing lifesaving treatments:
They’d waited out the whole game, and then they’d attacked him at the end and spray-painted the word WRONG across his chest … it was an example of the way some people were offended by anyone who’d been severely damaged and then put back together.
These perspectives are fascinating, and prepare the reader for the rest of the book, because the focus is never solely on the individual. Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful confronts the social politics of genetic engineering from the very outset, and by the third story a full-scale culture war is underway. Dayton seeks to trace current social and political groupings onto the modification movement, so not only are there implications for disabled people, but LGBTQ groups join the fray, fighting for the right to change their bodies as they wish. It’s satisfyingly insightful: how we live our lives and what we do with our bodies is central to the lives of LGBTQ people, from access to hormones to medications for HIV/AIDS. I was—at least at first—pleasantly surprised by the speculative social insights Dayton provides.
The political focus widens even further, and by the fifth story we’re given more detail on the world’s geopolitics. In fact, global politics are at the heart of Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful’s later narratives: we’re now presented with a future genetic cold war between the United States and Russia, with the former allowing genetic modification, and the latter strictly prohibiting it. This astutely maps onto the LGBTQ issues the novel has already established—you’d have to be living under a particularly homophobic rock to ignore the Russian state’s harassment of and discrimination against sexual minorities, which the novel carries into the coming decades. And this isn’t just over-reading by an overly indulgent queer reviewer—queer people and the genetically modified are directly tied together in this story, which centres around two young men enslaved by Russia, one for being gay, the other for attempting genetic modification.
Yet the geopolitical struggle isn’t simply one between “pure” and “modified” humans; in fact, Russia forces extensive mechanical modifications on its slave caste, and the novel goes into horrifying detail as to what this entails:
They were hacking apart his legs, stripping away the feet, the skin, as if he were a pig in a slaughterhouse … One tube was hooked onto the brilliant white of Jake’s newly cut thigh bone, which quickly aged, darkened, and began to bend as the machine roared. They were coating his bones with metal.
In one of my favourite parts of the novel, this brutality is then contrasted with a beautiful moment in which the two kidnapped and mutilated men share affection with one another:
He curled himself against Kostya so they were lying on their sides, fitted together perfectly, matching half-humans with soft, artificial skin. Then Jake put an arm around Kostya’s chest and slid his hand up until it rested over his friend’s heart.
Here the novel expertly weaves together the social and the personal. These two biomechanical slaves display more humanity than the “fully human” characters, and we’re presented with a scene which is both touching and achingly empathic. Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful is at its strongest during moments like this, reminding us of what remains even when politics and technology have robbed us of our very bodies. Dayton has a talent for character interaction, and the novel contains numerous heart-wrenching and poignant moments between the modified and unmodified alike, whether it’s a boy using his dying sister’s heart, an amphibious teen learning from a new mentor, or two semi-robotic slaves sharing a brief moment of love and comfort.
The two slave characters demonstrate that citizens on both sides of the “genetic curtain” are growing stronger, faster, and more beautiful—just via incredibly different methods. This global divide only widens as the novel progresses, and is crucial to each storyline from here on: the slave protagonist was kidnapped from Estonia after the country was annexed by Russia at some point in the near future. For those unfamiliar with Estonia and the other Baltic states, they were dominated by the Soviet Union until the end of the Cold War, and joined both NATO and the European Union in the early twenty-first century. Because of their experiences of being colonised, Latvian, Lithuanian, and Estonian people tend to be inclined toward the West, and hold little love for their former masters. As of 2019, support for the EU stands at a record high across eastern Europe.
Why am I giving a history lesson on the geopolitics of former Warsaw Pact states? Because this is where the novel’s problems really begin. Despite the political insights we saw earlier on, Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful ignores Estonia’s own history and politics completely. The novel gives scant detail, but at one point the country is openly invaded by a future Russia—a move which would automatically provoke war with both NATO and the European Union—then later it’s suggested that everyone east of Germany voluntarily surrendered themselves to the Russian state—a scenario which is even more unlikely. Yet, for some reason, the European Union doesn’t intervene. Probably because it’s never even mentioned.
As a western European with numerous friends from Eastern Europe, this narrative is both unrealistic and extremely distasteful, particularly within the current political climate. At a time when Europeans are fighting far-right attempts to dismantle our Union, the author chooses to disband it without fanfare. Despite two stories being set in current EU states, there’s not a single line of explanation as to why the European Union doesn’t seem to exist. Its absence is never accounted for, nor its former existence acknowledged. It’s an egregious oversight for a novel dealing with global politics, and this isn’t even something which can be overlooked, not with geopolitics being central to the overarching plot.
This only leads to another issue: we’re continually told about the state of the world via vague exposition, but we’re rarely actually shown what’s going on outside its impact on individuals. This can work when we’re given the perspective of a single, oppressed character, as with the unnamed protagonist in The Handmaid’s Tale, or when the action is geographically limited, as with Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway. Yet Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful seeks to provide multiple global perspectives while being obscure, contradictory, and US-centric. The novel feels the need to include the rest of the world, while never really doing so. Even the stereotype-laden World War Z works far better as an anthology of global stories.
The novel’s problematic politics reach a disturbed apex in its final tale. I’m torn between avoiding spoilers and letting you know just how troubling Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful’s outlook really is, so I’ll try to keep it vague:
Genetic modification kills millions.
I guess there’s no way of keeping that ambiguous. What was formerly presented as a pro-disability, pro-queer, pro-civil rights movement is now turned into an ugly abomination, one which literally causes mass death and the near-total destruction of North America. In a shocking turn, the novel not only rallies against genetic modification, but appears to express revulsion at diversity itself:
… these were humans who could not stop changing themselves. Seeing their grotesque diversity on such a scale, [she] understood that no natural process could be responsible.
The narrative suggests that this “grotesque diversity” is, in fact, lethal—and leads to literal mass death and social collapse. It’s a hackneyed Promethean outcome, which wouldn’t be so bad if Dayton hadn’t already tied this movement to real-life minority groups. The push for bodily freedom by disabled and LGBTQ people we saw earlier is now twisted into something reckless and immoral, with ultimately devastating consequences. In a very real sense, minorities have helped bring about an apocalypse, presenting the moral that if you let people do what they want with their own bodies then everyone will die. The novel’s geopolitics tie the United States to diversity and personal freedom, and Russia to murderous homophobia and slavery, yet it’s the latter state which lasts.
So let’s get this straight: minorities are not going to cause social collapse just by existing. That’s not a statement I expected to write in a book review. So how did we end up here?
Now, I need to be clear: I do not think this book is intentionally homo- or transphobic (as I already mentioned, the fifth story features a gay character, even if he does fall into the classic “tragic victim” trope, with a healthy dose of brutal homophobic violence thrown in). I simply think the author didn’t consider the social implications she herself introduced earlier on. As far as I can see, the problem with Dayton’s approach is that she links too many disparate issues to genetic modification, and seems to lose track of them. As the narrative progresses, genetic manipulation is tied to LGBTQ communities, civil rights, geopolitics, oligarchy, disability, discrimination, hate crimes, religious utopia, and slavery. Each is interesting when taken in isolation, but the author struggles to herd these scattered issues into a coherent argument. This leads to some incredibly unfortunate implications, and a generally confused and distracted perspective overall.
While Stronger, Faster. and More Beautiful presents fascinating scenarios and provides some intriguing social politics, the political conclusions it draws are unoriginal and unhelpful in our current climate: sweeping aside the European Union; accidentally playing into anti-trans and anti-queer scaremongering; and presenting diversity as lethal. Dayton’s needlessly complex and generally confused approach to political issues only weakens the story as it goes on. It would have made for a far better (and more palatable) book had its focus been narrower, building on the humanity it expresses so well through its individual characters and their beautifully haunting relationships—some of which will stay with me for a good while. Unfortunately, Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful’s politics only undermine its strengths, making the novel weaker, sillier, and considerably more troubling.