We have all seen movies set in the future, where humans have complete control over DNA and can create “perfect” children for a “perfect” society. I suspect that when one hears talk of genetic modifications, the thoughts that come to mind are curing diseases, customizing hair, skin, and eyes, correcting imperfections like poor vision or allergies, and a slew of other fairly benign changes that bring humans closer to society’s idea of perfection. Arwen Elys Dayton shares her view of the future in Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful, and it is anything but this somewhat simplified picture of superficial changes. It is not that Ms. Dayton means to scare people into making ethical decisions regarding genetic modifications. It is that Ms. Dayton recognizes how the best intentions of humans never really turn out the way we expect them. What starts as a little change to the retina’s DNA to provide someone with 20/20 vision quickly morphs into giving someone the sight of an eagle or the olfactory senses of a dog. Her vision involves some grotesque changes that may or may not change the idea of what makes someone a human.
Therein lies Ms. Dayton’s point. What does make us human? Is it our mind or our body? What happens when we change ourselves to the point of being more animal or robot than human? What happens when we fill ourselves with someone else’s organs? Do we become the other person? Am I still me? These are classic conundrums regarding genetic modification, except with the advent of CRISPR, these questions are more important than ever. For now, the scientific community is drawing a hard line at using CRISPR for the humane genome, but that doesn’t mean that this hard line will remain forever.
Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful means to shock and horrify you. There is a deliberate progression in each story as the main character shares his or her life in a world of extreme modification. Ms. Dayton makes no judgments, presenting each story in her vision of our future as matter-of-factly as possible. The reader provides the sentiment, whatever that may be, making it a novel ripe for discussion.
Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful is disturbing. You would like to think that humans would never go to such extremes to change our bodies, but there is nothing in the novel which should surprise you. Humans have always been willing and eager to do extreme things to their bodies in an attempt to be different, make a statement, or achieve arbitrary beauty standards. It is not a stretch of the imagination to understand that should we gain the ability to make changes at the genetic level, those extreme changes take on a whole other meaning. As such, its characters will haunt you for a long time, and that is another point. The next time someone talks to you about CRISPR or genetic modification as the next scientific breakthrough, you will remember the six characters in Ms. Dayton’s story. We all should remember these characters. Our future may depend on it.