Book Review: Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful by Arwen Elys Dayton (2018)

Friday, January 25th, 2019

“It’s like death and toffee.”

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for rape and homophobic violence.)

“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.”

He is passing from his own world into another, where humans and gravity hold sway. Up there, he isn’t Snake. He is only Chimera624, property of the Blessed Cures Consortium. If I were to examine the Consortium’s books, would I find myself listed as property too?

When you’d read Dickens, and Dickinson, and you’d read selections of Greek mythology and stories by a woman called Brontë and even a few by a man called Vonnegut—or at least, when you’d read the parts of those books that made it through the Proto Authority’s redaction process—you sometimes thought about a different sort of life.

This was, in a way, the beginning of a fairy tale.

This book began as a thought that one might variously describe as cynical or realistic (personally, my vote is on “all of the above”). While researching medical and technological advances on the horizon, Dayton’s initial reaction was the obvious: amazaballs! (Yes, it is 2019 and I am still using that word. Sue me.) This was rapidly supplanted by the more pessimistic: “We will definitely find some way of messing this up in spectacular fashion.” The six stories in Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful exist in the liminal space between the two, as helpfully illustrated by this chart in the Author’s Note:

(Not gonna lie, I loled.)

The stories take place in the vague and unspecified future: both not-so-distant, and many generations down the line (in the twilight of humanity, you might even say). While the tech is indeed amazing – from drive-ins that combine on-screen images with pictures on each car’s windshield to create a 3D experience, to the eradication of inherited diseases and body mods ranging from moving tattoos to wings and horns and gills and flippers – it kind of takes a backseat to how society chooses to interpret, respond to, and utilize these gifts. Unsurprisingly, theological and geopolitical rifts form. While many people welcome life-saving medical advances (cross-species organ harvesting; the merging of organic and robotic parts; gene manipulation to eliminate disease), the more frivolous cosmetic procedures (see: wings and horns and gills and flippers) prove controversial. Sometimes the distinction isn’t so clear-cut.

In Part 1: Matched Pair (“A few years from now…”), we meet Evan Weary on the eve of his sister Julia’s death, and his resurrection (of sorts). The semi-identical twins were born with the same genetic disease, which caused stunted growth and gradual organ failure in their too-short lives. Julia lies in a coma, while Evan prepares to accept (or “cannibalize,” depending on your POV) a myriad of her organs so that he might have a chance.

Part 2: St. Ludmilla (“A few more years from now…”) introduces us to Milla (so named for the titular saint), whose broken body was pieced together with a “meshline” after a devastating car accident. Because bigotry against “anyone who’d been severely damaged and then put back together” is on the rise, Milla downplays the fallout. But when Gabriel, the guy she’d been crushing on for years, discovers her secret, the consequences are … let’s just say deliciously felicitous. (Is it terrible that I wanted her to push him?)

In Part 3: The Reverend Mr. Tad Tadd’s Love Story (“Let’s leap ahead a little more…”), we learn a little more about Tad Tadd (never trust a guy with two first names!). Along with the tech, Tadd is the one character who remains a constant thread in all six stories. Tadd is an evangelical preacher who’s a hybrid of Jim Jones and Fred Phelps (of the Westboro Baptist Church fame). As a young man, he railed against altering our bodies in any way that would make them less “human” – even upon penalty of death. But when his wife and young son are killed at one of his protests (and, let’s face it, it’s hard not to root for the Ethiopian “mob”), Tad does a 180…but in a way that still manages to be self-serving and does absolutely nothing to help his “loved” ones. Fast-forward decades, maybe even a century, and the man has several pairs of multi-colored (think: tentacles) and extra eyes on the sides of his head. Jump ahead even more, and the man is God. But even gods can fall. And I’d getting ahead of myself.

Part 4: Eight Waded (“A lot of time has passed…”) mostly takes place underwater, where our anti-hero Alexios lives. Created to his parents’ specs by Genetic Radiance and deemed a failure, young Alexios was given “employment” as a chimera wrangler at the lab’s sister facility, The Blessed Cures Consortium. Here he defends the company’s property – with the help of a dolphin pod, no less – and lures unsuspecting manatees to their repeated torture:

Chimera. It means a living thing that contains tissue from two or more distinct organisms. Humans have used pigs and sheep and even rats to grow human organs cheaply and safely. But manatees are so much larger, and their lumbering ways and gentle attitudes so ideal to peacefully cultivating alien tissue, that my employer, the Blessed Cures Consortium, chose them as far more perfect chimeras than lowly pigs. Also, they can hide manatees underwater and leave their competitors guessing.

Chimera.
Or, switched around:
Ah, crime.

A perfect job for an eleven-year-old with a big brain and no empathy. (Though, let’s face it, the kid’s as much as slave as the sea creatures.) I especially love that Dayton chose manatees to be the “living organ tanks”; unlike pigs and sheeps, manatees – with their chubby bodies and docile demeanor – are universally beloved. They are cute and cuddly and worthy of consideration and compassion; certain to arouse outrage when mistreated. Yet they’re no different from pigs in the ways that matter: both are sentient, capable of feeling pain (and joy and love and grief, etc.) and suffering.

Anyway, the whole chapter reads like something out of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. So yes, I loved it.

Part 5: California (“We are definitely in the future now…”) takes us to Russia, where teenagers Jake and Kostya are on the run, having just escaped from a slave camp on an asteroid where they were being forced to mine platinum. Russia and America now (or will soon) sit on opposite sides of the “Genetic Curtain”: whereas Russia and its colonies prohibit the joining of human and nonhuman, America has yoyoed to the other extreme, allowing pretty much any and every mod devised by science, medically necessary or merely cosmetic. Yet Russia makes some exceptions, most notably for its prisoners and those deemed “deviant.”

And so it is that a cryogenically frozen California boy from a world long dead, and a Russian boy who just so happens to like kissing other boys, find their half-robot selves on a train barreling toward Siberia. Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

Part 6: Curiosities (“They have left us far behind…”) brings it all home on a reservation for “proto” humans located just outside of Denver. Teens Luck and Starlock are star-crossed lovers: with their contrasting white and black skins, there’s no chance these crazy kids are going to be Paired by the humans in charge. Not when genetic purity is the goal (ironic, coming from the people sporting antennae and wings!). But when the sentries fall – literally, their wings fall off and they wither to nothing – the Protos venture out beyond the confines of their electrified fence to see if there’s anything left in the big wide world. You know what they say about the meek inheriting the earth.

While I liked each story well enough, my enjoyment grew with each new chapter. It was really fascinating to watch Dayton’s world expand and grow, and to see how the pieces fit together. Whereas I’d give Part 1 a 3/5 – it’s rather short, and thus short on details – after that it was smooth sailing. Each chapter is a little longer than the one before it, so that they range from short stories (Part 1) to novellas (Part 5 and 6 each occupy about 25% of the book). The larger the ‘verse, the more captivated I became. I couldn’t stop reading, and yet I never wanted it to end.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)