By Scott Westerfeld
I’ve officially broken last year’s record with my 35th book. Yay.
The premise sounds intriguing enough. A few hundred years after some mysterious catastrophe obliterated the world’s oil supply (thus ending human civilization as we know it), society has rebuilt itself by harnessing renewable energy resources and going vegan. Technology has evolved to sustain and populate the cities again. Isolated and self-sufficient yet also fearful of war and dissent, these eco-friendly cities hit upon the need to create standards for the greater good.
Societal ills largely stem from people having vast differences over things like status and wealth, but obviously, not everyone can be rich and fabulous. And going all communist and making everyone poor wouldn’t be very fun either. But since everyone is born with inherent flaws in their physical appearance, wouldn’t the world be a happier place if everyone were beautiful? And even better, beautiful and blissfully ignorant! It would be the perfect equalizer!
When children turn 16, the benevolent government bestows upon them a series of extreme surgeries to have their faces and bodies (among other things) molded to fit societal standards of perfect beauty. Since humans are evolutionarily preconditioned to have positive responses to facial symmetry, clear complexions and proportionate bodies, applying these standards equally for everyone will reduce conflict and create a more harmonious society. By agreeing to go under the knife, you are also rewarded by getting to party every day and every night (at least until it's time to reproduce) with all the fancy clothes and cosmos you could possibly want!
Westerfeld thus takes a page off of Dystopian Fiction 101 where you have a “vision of an orderly world in which suffering is minimized and pleasure maximized”. But for me, it is only a partially complete world. As a science fiction novel, the author does not explain how a society (even one with highly advanced technology) can support a whole class of perfectly sculpted hedonists (like who makes their disposable fancy clothes or distills the alcohol that gets them loaded?), nor how it can sustain itself when the majority of its young citizens are partying during their stage of post-educational development instead of working towards being productive members of society (like cosmetic surgeons, for instance). But this pretty little book does not want to bother with such trivial details.
Instead we have a world where everyone is supermodel-gorgeous, so now normal people seem ugly by comparison (one wonders what this world would do with the truly hideous or deformed but, surprise, the book doesn't bother with that either). Children are considered Littlies and therefore exempt from being ugly. As soon as they turn twelve, they are relegated to official “Ugly” status, spending the next four years loathing themselves and longing to be “Pretty”. Sound familiar?
Westerfeld has put a clever spin on the awkward stage of adolescence, but I still found Uglies rather "meh". There just wasn’t anything particularly original or refreshing in the themes, nor in the execution of those themes. We have some dystopian teen angst embodied in fifteen-year-old protagonist Tally Youngblood, and there is the obvious social commentary about how society perpetuates unrealistic images of beauty to our youth. But it doesn’t go beyond, well, the obvious.
What happens to young naive Tally Youngblood is also pretty rote stuff, so I won’t get into how Tally loses her best friend Peris once he becomes a Pretty, then finds a new BFF in rebellious Shay, who convinces Tally to journey to the Rusty Ruins which leads her to a band of merry Uglies living in a secluded mountain valley (as well as fall for the same boy named David who is -surprise!- actually pretty cute for "ugly" standards). To Tally’s amazement, David and his fellow Uglies don’t see themselves as ugly at all. They are content to live out their lives without any surgical intervention imposed on their bodies. Imagine that!
It’s no surprise that the "urban dystopia versus utopian wilderness" theme has become somewhat clichéd: people are unwittingly domesticated by a [enter –ist word, ie. fascist, agist, uglist] society, yet one individual manages to see through the false utopia, escapes to discover an alternate community of [enter synonym for dissenters, counter-culture types, etc.] who eventually overcome the system, and reclaim humanity. I have not read much dystopian fiction, but already Logan’s Run (1967) and John Christopher’s Wild Jack (1974) come to mind. The Hunger Games is another recent example which recycles familiar tropes, but the excellent pacing and tight narrative makes you forgive some inherent flaws. More importantly, the world that Suzanne Collins depicts feels more complete. There are no gaping logistical holes that fester in the back of your mind, like it did for me when reading Uglies.
For whatever reason, I didn’t get the same thrill and enjoyment with Uglies. For one thing, I couldn’t get past the cutesy terms for categorizing people: Littlies, Uglies, New Pretties, Middle Pretties and Late Pretties (or Crumblies). I mean, where are the SILLIES when you need ‘em? Ok, there are the Specials, but they should really be called the SCARIES, since they are government agents surgically enhanced for intelligence, strength and, wait for it, terrifying beauty. Let’s not forget the people of old who used to live in pollution-choked cities and kill animals for food. They were known as the Rusties. Nothing is too complicated that would potentially hurt a reader's pretty little head.
Westerfeld, however, does do a decent job capturing the mentality of a typical teenage girl growing up in a screwed up world. Tally’s guilt for being a potential traitor to the cause is also portrayed quite realistically, as you definitely get the sense that our heroine is a naive character who has a LOT to learn and develops some backbone and principles toward the end. At the end of the day, though, Westerfeld's bland writing style combined with fairly half-baked ideas made Uglies seem like a book aimed at the lowest common denominator.
It’s too bad I don’t feel inclined to read the rest of the series, as it would help get me closer to 40 books!