Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful by Arwen Elys Dayton: Part Five

Is it read-worth? Yes, absolutely, but I don’t know how to even begin talking about this section of Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful. It was extremely well-written (unsurprisingly) and I really enjoyed it, but there is just so much to talk about. It was really jam packed. Homophobia, parenting, tough decisions, Russia. I don’t even know where to begin. So please forgive me if this sounds like the ramblings of a mad woman! I’m going to try my best to come up with a concise train of thoughts, but no promises.

SPOILER ALERT

I don’t know how to even begin talking about this section of Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful. It was extremely well-written (unsurprisingly) and I really enjoyed it, but there is just so much to talk about. It was really jam packed. Homophobia, parenting, tough decisions, Russia. I don’t even know where to begin. So please forgive me if this sounds like the ramblings of a mad woman! I’m going to try my best to come up with a concise train of thoughts, but no promises. 

The beginning of this short story was very obviously designed to catch a reader’s attention, just like every other short story in this collection has been. And it very much so succeeded. Instead of offering a lot of lead up (like in part two), it put you right in the middle of a high-risk, scary situation. Jake and Kostya are trying to escape the Russian men chasing them. They are both swearing in Russian, although Jake admits he is an English-speaking American. It comes across as strange, but immediately piques your interest. Why does an American man feel more comfortable with Russian swear words than English ones? He mentions that his bosses have made American swear words feel fake after yelling at him in Russian for so long. Who are his bosses?

You immediately want to know more. Who is this guy? What’s he doing?

While being chased, Jake deploys his “secondary left arm” and attacks one of their pursuers with a knife. This description of a secondary arm continues throughout the entire story, but I personally have a very difficult time imagining what the author means. Has Jake been redesigned to resemble a centipede? How has he gained such easy use of an extra limb? Even after months of practicing with spare arms, I don’t know if I could ever grasp their usage. Can the human mind really adapt to the addition of unnatural limbs?

You’re also told, during this first chase scene, that Jake can only raise a small amount of force against a human. His “full-sized” arms are mostly incapable of exerting any amount of force against a human; the one that can do so is only due to poor maintenance. His secondary arms are both weak and feeble, designed only for delicate work. Later in the short story, when the scene where he first realizes this limitation, this inability to harm humans is what makes him fully understand that he was a slave and, as a slave, he was designed not to harm his masters.

I really enjoyed those little details. I also really appreciated this line of Jake’s internal dialogue when he is rushing through mid-afternoon traffic trying to escape his pursuers and is shocked by the continued existence of normal human things like city blocks and sidewalks: “How could such old-fashioned, everyday things still be here? How was the world so ordinary when Jake himself had become something else?” Dayton is absolutely excellent at capturing core ideas and feelings in short statements or questions. The depth of Jake’s changes are undisclosed at this point, but they are obviously extensive and far reaching. He has been changed to the point where he barely recognizes himself. 

In contract to the following description of Yulia, an average Russian girl entering her home, it feels especially powerful that Jake has been changed by so much. Compared to most of the book, Yulia is almost entirely unaltered. She is a natural human girl.

Jake’s reaction to her is not as natural. While he found her to be curious at first, she almost seemed to repulse him. Her hair in particular bothered him. He himself is unable to grow hair due to his mostly robotic frame. The bosses who had monitored him in the mines kept their hair shaved. It seemed animalistic and unclean to grow hair. He had become a sterile being and she was a lowly beast. 

I wonder if others in his shoes would have the same reaction. Would the sight of hair repulse them too? Or does that depend on the individual? I believe that many people who had undergone the same process as Jake would feel jealousy when viewing a woman with hair instead of disgust. They would want to return to a state where they too could look so human. I personally can only imagine myself being overwhelmed with envy. 

It is also interesting that Yulia seemed to feel the same level of curiosity towards Jake that he felt towards her. While I was glad that their relationship never evolved into something pseudo-romantic, their curiosity towards each other felt powerful in a new way. It was almost like viewing each other was a new discovery on both of their ends. Once she got past her initial feelings of fear, she couldn’t seem to help but question him. 

The process of Jake “becoming” human was very intriguing as well. Honestly, most of this short story was just incredibly interesting to think about. Most of this series has been. The majority of his frame and appearance is technological with metallic limbs and control panels. Jake doesn’t look human. He looks like a robot. But a switch in his chest allows him to create fake skin that gives him a very humane appearance. From a distance, he is indistinguishable from others. Up close? You could tell the difference. 

However, as the story progresses, it is unbelievably disturbing to realize that the extent of his alterations are not the full extent to which Russia edits mankind. Based on the previous short story, I was not expecting such horrible alterations to take place in Russia. Convicts, or other people deemed less than the ideal Russian citizen, are built into garbage collecting systems, machines that put out fires, and machines that mend the sewage system. They’re intentionally modified to service one purpose until their sentence is served. They are not human in any regard. It’s hard to imagine this taking place, but it’s also hard to comprehend how such substantial observations could ever be reversible. Do their sentences ever end? Is this the future of our criminal system? 

How could someone do this to another person?

In Jake’s case, the reasons for his alterations seem very shallow to me. He was changed into a robotic being because Russians need platinum in order to create their technology. It is an important reason, but it is a complete injustice. He was chosen because Russian officials view Americans as prisoners of war and, therefore, as inherently less than themselves. He lost his body and his freedom. I understand the rationalization, and it’s very realistic, but I absolutely hate it, perhaps due to my lens as an American citizen. How could they do this to someone, anyone? It is absolutely horrific. Even the worst criminals don’t deserve this. Perhaps the Russians feel it is a fair trade for bringing him back to life.

It is extremely hypocritical to think that Russians judge Americans for not staying pure to the human form and then they turn their convicts and prisoners of war into highly manipulated machines. Jake is hardly even human after what they did to him. Their Genome War with America is entirely a philosophical war based off of what is okay to do to people and what is not. Russia was supposed to be the ones fighting for the simplicity of the human form, but they have not done so. While their general population may be “pure”, their criminals are made into mechanical monsters.

In contrast to Jake’s current existence, the flashbacks to his life in California are a welcome break. They seem so full of color and liveliness in comparison. The competition with his friends to have sex with more girls is a bit gross in my opinion, but adds context and believability to the extent of his youth. He was just a teenage boy. Even though he had been frozen in time due to the cancers in his body, Jake was really still a teenage boy. He shouldn’t have had to go through any of this. He hadn’t done anything wrong. He was just a victim of cancer and of Russia’s search for platinum. Because of it, he lost almost all of his physical reminders of being human.

As a side note, the extent of his changes did remind me of the Unsullied from Game of Thrones. They were designed to be the ultimate warrior slaves in the Game of Thrones universe and Jake was designed to be the ideal working slave. Both groups had been castrated, maimed, and enslaved by organizations with no concern for their individual well-beings. I wonder if, like the Unsullied, he will search out contact in other forms once he is able. Simple human touch could end up meaning as much to him as sexual intercourse could have in his former life. After all, Jake was almost without human touch for so long. Any gentleness and signs of affection could become so much more meaningful than they would have been previously.

It seemed to me, at first, that Yulia was supposed to be the missing piece in Jake’s search for home. Again, I’m glad that she wasn’t. It wasn’t the right time and would have felt small against the grandeur of his problems. Kostya, if anything, was closer to being Jake’s humanity than I think anyone else could be. 

Speaking of Kostya, It is strange to use rampant homophobia in a futuristic context. I always imagine the future as a place free of baseless biases. The idea of homophobia and racism and sexism continuing far into the future bothers me. Of course, it is unrealistic to expect for all those things to just stop one day. You might argue that small hatreds are built into humanity. In order for you to truly love the people around you, can you be without hate for something else? On a small scale, of course. On a large scale? I’m not so sure. 

Kostya was given to the Russian government by his father because he is gay. Immediately after finding out, it was like he had died in the eyes of his father. Kostya was no longer even worth looking at. He killed Kostya’s lover immediately upon finding them. I wonder if he was punished for his violence, made into a convict, or rewarded for ridding the world of a gay man. It is disgusting to think that he was probably rewarded for killing another person. Kostya was not entirely excited to return to Russia when they escaped the bossy, as a result. He felt like returning to Russia was another kind of dying.

Similarly, I wonder if Yulia will actually be rewarded for turning them in. It is obvious that the Russian government didn’t want the general population to find out about what they are doing. She didn’t even know that platinum came from outside the planet. They were told otherwise. Will they really allow her to just leave and live with that knowledge? I highly doubt it. Her fate will probably be similar to the one she almost condemned Kostya and Jake to.

It is also difficult, in my opinion, to imagine a future that is so dirty. How can the world have such highly futuristic technology and such a run-down landscape? When Jake describes the train station, it is a whirlwind of advancement. The trains were the science fiction transportation devices everyone imagines. But the train station itself was still run-down and dirty. There was old chewing gum on the ground and dark tobacco stains on the wall. Again, completely realistic, but somehow still unexpected. The future we are always shown in films and movies, outside of apocalyptic fiction, is always bright and clean. 

It is curious that religious morality has mostly faded by this section of the collection. The first three parts included a lot of religion. I didn’t note that the last section had no religious beliefs involved. Is this intentional or accidental? The decline of spirituality has always been a consequence of increasing scientific knowledge. Or was the inclusion of homophobia supposed to be the bridge towards religious beliefs? 

However, this storyline did continue with a lot of the same themes that previous short stories had run with as well, particularly concepts that have to do with parenthood. In the first short story, we were asked if we would give up the life of one child in exchange for the life of another. Would we shorten the life of one in order to give the other a normal life? In the previous section, we were asked what changes we would make in our children to give them a better life. Would we give them intelligence or beauty beyond belief? Would that be our right, as parents? Or would that be an encroachment on their own lives? In this section, we are asked if we would give up our child to the unknown on the small chance it will save their life. I really enjoy the continuation of this line of questioning. Asking people about parenthood and love will always be universal, even into the far off future. What would you do for your child? Is it your right to do it?

In the case of Jake, his parents were willing to give him up to the unknown with the hope he could be revived and live a full life later on. Of course, they couldn’t imagine what he would experience. I wonder if they would think his life is worth living. Was it worth giving him up just for him to be used and changed and hurt? Was it worth curing his cancer just for them to make him into a slave?

When he is frozen, it is painless. 

I do wonder if Jake will ever find out what happened to Dehlia or vice versa if we will ever hear about what ends up happening with Jake. When we leave off at the end of this short story, him and Kostya are still running from the police. They jump off of a train. Does he ever make it to America? The hopeful part of me believes he does, but the cynical part of me believes Russia must have some type of system of catching escaped convicts. Jake and Kostya can’t be the only ones on Earth with such extensive upgrades. The author had mentioned earlier that Russians had had no problems with upgrading people for military purposes after all. Will they follow and capture them? 

And I wish he had said goodbye to Dehlia. I understand why he didn’t, but it felt very unfair to her. He seemed to love her. I wonder if she ever recovered from the loss of him.

After Jake wakes up, he is pierced and cut with needles and knives. His cancer is removed from him and, then, his limbs. The skin and muscles were removed from his body. He couldn’t feel it, but he could see it happening. I wonder why, when they were so willing to do such extensive physical alterations, the Russians did not tamper with his mind. Why did they not make him crave performing the operations and tasks he was given? Why not make him like his role in life? You will not have escaped robots if you make the robots enjoy what they’re doing. And how are these alterations worth the money? It must be expensive to perform these operations. Unimaginably expensive. They are curing diseases and then stripping someone of their humanity. It also sounds extremely expensive to then train these people how to use their new bodies and, then, to get them to the asteroid belt. How can platinum cover all of those costs? Do these procedures extend their lives by quite a bit, beyond protecting them from most manners of death? 

It is horrifying to imagine going through these things. It is not difficult to think that, after being altered and cut up and made into a slave, you would want to die. Kostya says that many of the first batch of slaves tried to kill themselves. It  is very hard for them to die. The fake skin they were given is all that saved Jake and the others from feeling the same suicidal tendencies as the prior group. It gave them a sense of remembered humanity. And the journey to the asteroid sounds impossible to live through in itself. The slaves were crammed in cargo bay racks, fed by twos, and bombarded with messages from a learning screen meant to teach them Russian. They were not even allowed to talk to each other most of the time.

But some of the moments were, of course, beautiful. Jake undoubtedly lost more than he gained, but the experience he gained was not entirely without value. He got to see a sight few people would ever see: the sight of the galaxy. It seemed to have a large impact on him. He would also get the sense that in such a large universe, he was something new. But remembering that he was only an object after that thought continuously hurt him. “He could see the infinite universe, but he was looking with the eyes of a slave.”

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