Uglies (Uglies Trilogy, Book 1), by Scott Westerfeld

Scott Westerfeld is an American, visit web married to Justine Larbalestier, pills who is Australian, and they split their time between the two countries (and a few others). Uglies is certainly not his first book, but it appears to be the most popular (or part of the most popular series) at the moment.

Tally Youngblood is just a few short months away from her sixteenth birthday, and in her world, that means she gets to turn from an Ugly into a Pretty. It’s basically an Extreme Makeover, complete with bone reshaping, liposuction, and implants, so you conform to a ‘scientifically determined’ standard of beauty. Everyone gets this makeover, which is good, of course, because that way people can’t get judged on how they look. Her best friend, Peris, has already undergone the transformation, and she misses him. On the way back from sneaking out to see him (in New Pretty Town), Tally meets another Ugly, due to get Prettified the same day she is, named Shay. They become friends, and then Shay tells Tally her big secret: there’s this guy named David, and a town called Smoke, where people escape because they don’t want to get the surgery. Tally, of course, desperately wants the surgery, so when Shay leaves she doesn’t follow. Until the government gets involved.

This is a standard dystopian novel, meaning Tally lives in a utopia that isn’t as perfect as it seems, and she gets involved with the underground movement to bring it down. It’s a trilogy, though, so presumably the downfall of the world of the Pretties will take two more books. I’ve read a few other dystopian novels, as have most people who passed twelfth-grade English at an American high school: Lord of the Flies, Brave New World, and 1984 are all standard parts of the curriculum now. For f/sf fans, Heinlein’s classic Stranger in a Strange Land also qualifies, and has strong parallels to the aforementioned Brave New World. The plot of Uglies was unexceptional, in relation to that list. The details, of course, are new and fairly interesting, but the short description of the plot is fairly similar to Brave New World, complete with character who was raised entirely outside the system.

The world was fairly well-realized. I thought the technology was a good extrapolation of what things might be three hundred years from now, given certain future events. The characters had their own slang, even within different groups (Uglies talk differently from Pretties, who both talk differently from Smokies). Tally is a good protagonist; she’s smart enough to get into trouble, but without being smart enough to figure out everything all at once, or just generally unrealistically smart. She also evolves as a character, learning the downsides of her reality. Her friends, mostly Shay and David, are also interesting and rounded out. Westerfeld also did a very good job with descriptions: people’s looks, settings, landscapes, and the unfamiliar technologies. Generally speaking, I quite enjoyed his prose.

And yet, I didn’t like the book in particular. Why? Mostly because I have this horrible feeling that the reason that the book is so popular isn’t because it’s a skillful deconstruction of our current reality — I think people, girls in particular, are reading the book because they want, quite desperately, to live in a reality where one is given plastic surgery at the age of sixteen so that one will be perfect-looking for the entire rest of one’s life. He does give a nod to the excesses of trying to be perfect — there’s a scene wherein Tally is completely horrified by a picture of an anorexic-looking model from, supposedly, the twenty-first century — but I think overall the message of the book could easily be lost on the majority of readers.

Yeah, I don’t think that highly of people, especially those in adolescence who are almost universally fixated on appearances and popularity. (Even the ones who swear they aren’t, are, at least to some degree.) Also, with the incredibly high rate of eating disorders and disordered eating among adolescent girls, I think this book (with its emphasis on being Pretty) could easily add to the societal message. Tally spends about 90% of the book desperately wanting the surgery — so much that she is willing to go to desperate measures, just so they don’t leave her Ugly for the rest of her life. I honestly think that 90% is going to make more of an impression than the 10% when Tally is realizing that you don’t have to have the surgery in order to be ‘pretty’ (attractive), and that the disadvantages that come along with having the surgery might outweigh the benefits.

No, I am not saying that Scott Westerfeld shouldn’t have written this book. It’s a good read, actually, and there are some exciting chase scenes on hoverboards, as well as excitement out in the wild areas. I’m just saying that I desperately hope that people like the book because it’s a decent-although-not-terribly-innovative dystopian novel, and not because they want to be a Pretty. Overall I’ll rate the book 4/5 stars, but with reservations.

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