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Interview: January 8, 2019

Arwen Elys Dayton’s latest novel STRONGER, FASTER, AND MORE BEAUTIFUL is a science fiction thriller told in six parts and provides a look at the unlimited possibilities of biotech advances and the ethical quandaries they will provoke. Dayton shows us a near and distant future in which we will eradicate disease, extend our lifespans and reshape the human body. The results can be heavenly --- saving the life of your dying child; and horrific --- the ability to modify convicts into robot slaves. Deeply thoughtful, poignant, horrifying and action-packed, this novel is groundbreaking in both form and substance. STRONGER, FASTER, AND MORE BEAUTIFUL examines how far we will go to remake ourselves into the perfect human specimen, and what it means to be human at all. It should come as no surprise that STRONGER, FASTER, AND MORE BEAUTIFUL is one of our Ultimate Reading List titles, and in celebration of the book's release, we talked to Arwen about her new book, genetic modification, research and writing and more! Keep reading to see her answers.

TEENREADS.COM: Your book, STRONGER, FASTER AND MORE BEAUTIFUL, is a collection of six stories set in a horrifying future where humans can manipulate their genetics, design smarter and more beautiful children and more or less live forever. Can you tell us where you got the first idea for this book?

ARWEN ELYS DAYTON: I've been reading about human genetic modification for many years, just out of interest. At some point a few years ago, I suddenly saw several pieces of this story, set in our world as the manipulation of human DNA became more accepted, available and widespread.

Usually stories come to me with a character first. That happened in STRONGER, FASTER AND MORE BEAUTIFUL, but it was several characters arriving in quick succession, with this background of genetic modification.

The story I wanted to tell was the human experience of our changing world. What will it be like to grow up, to fall in and out of love, to figure out who you are when the very essence of "you" might be changing?

TRC: Did you have to do a lot of research on the science of genetics to begin writing, or did you look details up as you needed them? Was there anything you learned that really shocked you?

AD: I try to fill myself up to the brim with a new area of research ahead of time so that I have a rich context in my mind as I write. Then I throw away details and specifics as I go because you can't get all the trivia and facts and such into your fiction --- nor should you! Your only job is to tell the story of your characters and the facts be damned.

I learned so many incredible things about growing human organs in livestock, extending life span, editing DNA. The most shocking aspect may be the potential for creating artificially edited human children, children with traits that have never existed in our species before. Though, admittedly, the possibility is both shocking and intriguing. Who wouldn't want to be impervious to the flu, or have night vision, for example?

TRC: One of the more interesting aspects of your book is that the idea of genetic manipulation and augmentation begins sort of harmlessly, with teenagers being saved from horrific car crashes and organ transplants running much more smoothly --- but then it very quickly shifts to a dystopia. Can you tell us a bit about this shift, and how you chose the stories that would portray it?

AD: STRONGER, FASTER AND MORE BEAUTIFUL is full of understandable but debatable decisions. Semi-identical twins who are dying. When one lapses into a coma, the decision is made to use the healthy parts of her organs to allow her brother to live. A teenager who’s hiding the degree to which she's been rebuilt after a terrible car accident, because she knows that her friends, and in particular the boy she cares about, won’t approve of the artificial pieces that are now keeping her alive. A "designer baby" conceived in a lab to have high intelligence, with dramatically unexpected results. Each part begins in a way that seems perfectly reasonable...but the ripples of these actions spread out pretty far. 

I didn't analytically choose the stories. They were just there in my head, and as I wrote them, their themes came into sharper focus. It's funny, because I'm quite optimistic about the future and all of the advances in medicine and longevity. But there are over 7 billion people in the world, and even if a majority make good decisions, there will be crazy choices made by some and mistaken policies and places in the world that run amok. Even in the parts of STRONGER, FASTER AND MORE BEAUTIFUL that could be described as a dystopia, I don't feel that everyone everywhere is experiencing that. And yet it is up to each of us to participate in the coming changes to humanity --- and hopefully urge things in a sensible direction so we don't end up with the kind of world none of us want.

TRC: As genetic manipulation becomes more and more advanced, the societies in your book strike up some shockingly prejudiced beliefs, and the world seems to divide in a way that feels eerily timely. Can you talk about why you included this aspect, and what you hope teen readers will learn from it?

AD: We live in a time where we're becoming more aware of prejudice, and yet I notice that even among people who consider themselves very tolerant and supportive there may only be support for the people and groups they see being supported by others they admire on social media. I'm not sure if we're really improving general tolerance for people of diverse backgrounds and beliefs if they're not involved in a currently well-known cause.

In that way I worry that the present wave of awareness and tolerance is more selective than we realize. Real tolerance is not about riding a wave of support with everyone else but truly seeking to understand and have tolerance for all --- even if you think they're strange or different or you don't see them being championed by others. Until that becomes the popular philosophy, I think we're in continual danger of new prejudices and new versions of "us vs. them." It felt only natural that human modification would bring out these traits.

TRC: Another theme of STRONGER, FASTER AND MORE BEAUTIFUL is the idea of beauty and intelligence leading to power --- after all, why else would people want to change their bodies so drastically? Was this theme an important one for you to include from the start, or did it arise organically? Again, what do you hope teens will take away from this?

AD: That arose organically. Even without genetic modification, our society is intensely focused on looks and beauty, and this can't help but seep into fiction. I watch my own children interacting with Instagram and I see an alternate reality that can overshadow the actuality of our lives.

When we can change our bodies, down to the genetic level, for real, we'll have to figure out what is important and what makes us who we are. I hope we won't fall into a deeper trap of thinking that physical appearance is more valuable than all of the other qualities we have as human beings.

TRC: Did you always know STRONGER would be a collection of stories, or did you ever toy with the idea of writing a novel based on these ideas instead?

AD: I always knew that this particular book would be a collection. Though the truth is that I see STRONGER, FASTER AND MORE BEAUTIFUL as one story that happens to be in six parts. I understand why people refer to it as separate stories or even as an anthology but for me those six parts add up to one complete narrative, and while the individual sections do have beginnings and middles and ends of their own, they don't convey the full story until they are united.

That said, I do think about what it would be like to take one or two of the book's sections and expand them into a novel-length narrative. The Russian asteroid mining slave story, in particular, would be interesting to explore further. We'll see!

TRC: Was there one story that was easiest to write, or one character who you felt closest to? Can you tell us why? (And vice-versa, was one story harder to write than the others?)

AD: Weirdly, the character of Alexios, who lives underwater, eschews most human contact and finds his mind obsessed with word games and puzzles was the easiest to slip into. I myself have a touch of his obsessive search for patterns and I "got" what it would be like to be him --- even though the mother in me was upset by his family situation.

TRC: We’ve learned from your book that genetic manipulation, even when it starts with good intentions, can lead to pretty terrifying results. That said, what are some positives you feel can come from these sort of scientific advances? Ideally, where would science go next?

AD: There are so many positives, but foremost will be the ability to cure or at least successfully fight illnesses that cause untold suffering --- from genetic diseases like cystic fibrosis and sickle cell disease to cancers to Alzheimer's. I don't know how long it will take to make these advances, but I do know, from speaking with many scientists on the forefront of research, that we are truly in a new frontier. The next five to 10 years should bring some game changers for human health.

TRC: Do you think this is a topic you will continue to explore in future works? If not, can you give us any ideas about what we can expect next from you?

AD: I thought this book was all I had to say on this topic, but over the last six months, as I interviewed more scientists, I've realized that there may be a bit more to tell. I'm working on a book that will likely be a companion piece to STRONGER, FASTER AND MORE BEAUTIFUL. I'm also completely fascinated by the intricacies of evolution and the vast number of life forms that have existed on Earth over the past billions of years. I'm working on a story that touches on some of that as well.