Arwen Elys Dayton, author of the science fiction Seeker trilogy, invites readers to consider the future with Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful, a standalone SF novel told through six interconnected stories that successively look further into the future, where scientific and medical advancements blur the definition of humanity and right and wrong. Dayton spoke with PW about the role of research in writing science fiction, plotting interconnected stories, and the importance of young people’s awareness of the medical advances that will shape the future.
Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful has been compared to Black Mirror and The Twilight Zone. From where did the idea for the novel come? Are you a fan of these shows?
Yes, I grew up watching the old black-and-white episodes of The Twilight Zone. They were probably replaying for the millionth time, but I was still scared by them. I totally enjoy Black Mirror, too. But I’ve been fascinated with what’s happening with biotech, advances in medicine, and now DNA editing for many years. I’ve always kept up with these things by reading articles and knew I wanted to write something focusing on these fields. I really wanted to do something different after writing the Seeker series and had the idea of writing interconnected short stories. I was excited when I realized I could do something with these topics in that format.
Why did you decide to structure this book as six interconnected stories featuring different characters, set in different places, and in different times?
I didn’t know exactly how interconnected they would be. I knew, minimally, that the stories would share a theme: the new evolution of humanity going forward from now. The thing is, there are so many different aspects to genetic advances. There’s CRISPR [Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats], which is a buzzword everyone is talking about, with countless labs working on things like eradicating disease with CRISPR. There are scientists growing human organs in pigs to be transplanted into humans. People fighting the “disease of aging.” I wanted to go further and further into the future, which is harder to do with one story and one character. I loved the idea of viewing these advancements through the eyes of young people.
How did you plot this story? Did you outline or plan with any type of structure?
Plotting is an optimistic word. Usually I get the character first and the world comes up around them. This time, it’s a little bit harder to describe the process. For example, I knew I wanted to talk about chimaeras, these creatures that had genetic material from more than one entity. So, the Dolphin Boy—as I call him, he’s never called that in the story—came into my mind. I knew he was going to be in the story, so then I had to decide how far in the future his story would have to take place. It took a little while to determine the timeline.
What type of research into medicine and science did you do?
I read hundreds of articles over many, many years. During the writing process, I conducted numerous interviews with different researchers. One researcher was working to edit mosquitoes so they couldn’t carry malaria. There’s a lab in New York testing the 98% of our DNA that doesn’t build our body, but affects how that remaining 2% functions.
The funny thing is, when I’m writing science fiction, I fill myself up with research until I’m saturated, then it’s in the background. The research isn’t really the point, it’s the context for the personal, intimate stories. I didn’t worry too much about how the reality blends into the story. I needed to understand what was theoretically possible.
Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful explores the often contentious relationship between science and religion. Why did you choose to address this dichotomy?
When I was young, I remember seeing a story on the news about a girl who was around my age, maybe 11, who refused medical treatment because of her and her parents’ religious beliefs. I have thought about that ever since. I agree that she has the right to refuse treatment, but it’s so hard to understand that choice. It fascinated me that someone could philosophically feel this way. So, since I’ve been young, I’ve had that question. How do you balance that? Do I have something I feel that strongly about that I’d risk my health?
What do you hope readers gain in reading these stories?
Since I’ve finished the book, the number of articles being published on these topics seems to be increasing exponentially. I just saw an article today about a scientist in China who claims to have edited two human embryos. It hasn’t been verified, but it’s been claimed. No one is saying it’s not possible. So I hope that readers will enjoy the story and the experience of the book, but, since we’re on this frontier as a species, I want people to know that these possibilities exist and are happening. I want people to be part of making decisions about these advancements and the future.
Do you have an opinion about how advancing technology and genetic modification affects humanity? Has writing this book shifted your perspective?
I think I’m very optimistic about all the ways we can make life better by curing diseases and alleviating suffering, but there are over seven billion people in the world and some of them will do stupid things. So I think I’m optimistic and wary at the same time. Some people will behave rationally and ethically, but we need to figure out how to navigate what happens when people are not rational and ethical.
You’ve shared a playlist for Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful on your website; is music an important part of your writing process?
It’s not an important part in that I have to hear a certain song in order to write, but I do find that, while I’m writing a book, songs will stick with me. [I’ll assemble a playlist of songs I ended up listening to a lot that feel like they are of the world of the book or inspired it in some way. I don’t have to have the music to write, but it does add another dimension that I enjoy.
You began your career as a teenage staff writer at a foundation, then you began writing screenplays and novels. How does your background inform your storytelling approach?
The foundation was the first job I had, as an 18-year-old; I had to research and write articles for a company that produced educational videos. It was hard work and a kind of journalism in a way. It taught me about outlines, deadlines, and succinct writing, which was good to have drilled into me. It was an extremely valuable experience for plotting something tightly. I’ve never had a screenplay produced, but I have sold a few. Other than that, writing novels is its own beast.
Why are you drawn to writing for young adults specifically?
I’m fascinated with that time of life. It’s that time when you have infinite possibilities and infinite obstacles. I feel a strong kinship with that age group. I don’t know that I’ll always write for this audience, but it’s what seems to come out when I’m writing.
Which authors or books have inspired you?
Reading Dune out loud at 10 or 11 with my parents was a seminal event in my life. Ray Bradbury’s work was extremely influential to me as a teen. The stuff that you read at that age is really important. I’m a proponent of reading a lot and as much as possible.
Have you read any books with a similar format to Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful, like Cloud Atlas?
Of course. I think the biggest way Cloud Atlas impacted me was how seamlessly Mitchell went from one genre to the next. From historical fiction at the beginning to this crazy science fiction story later. The way he scoffed at genre really made me think about what you can do with a book. The stories in my book are more connected than that, but, by reading Cloud Atlas, I realized that I should just write what I want to write.
What can you share about your next project?
I may be writing a companion piece to Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful. I wasn’t interested in doing that, but now I feel that I have a way that I’m interested in. I’m also finishing up another unrelated manuscript that I’m not quite ready to talk about.
Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful by Arwen Elys Dayton. Delacorte, $18.99 Dec. 4 ISBN 978-0-525-58095-9