Scott Westerfeld’s trilogy-turned-four book series, Uglies, is one of many recent young adult dystopias. It is set in a post-Rusty world (you and I are “Rusties” by the way, due to our mutual dependence on metal) and appears quite peaceful. The basic premise of the society that Westerfeld creates is that nearly everybody is born ugly and, on their sixteenth birthday, is made pretty through cosmetic surgery. Pretty means average – perfect symmetry, average height, average weight, no extremes. There are also Specials, who enforce the laws of the city and may or may not exist. The city where they live is filled with disposable creature-comforts that come out of a hole in the wall upon request and can be instantly recycled to reduce waste. Solar energy abounds and people remain within the city, leaving the wild to itself, because this new way of life is designed to reduce humans’ impact on the planet due to what humanity has learned about its own destructive nature as demonstrated by the Rusties who destroyed themselves through oil consumption (something to look forward to!). Comfort is perfectly balanced with green living and everyone is hot (or about to become hot) – sounds like a veritable Eden, no? Oh yeah, there’s a catch: at the same time that everybody becomes pretty, they also become the recipients of brain lesions that make them “bubbleheaded” – pretty much vapid bores who are incapable of thinking about much more than themselves and the next party (very Brave New Worl-esque). No big deal.
The original trilogy follows one character, Tally Youngblood, as she explores the three stages (or possible stages) of life in the city that young adults would probably find the most interesting. Their titles are self-explanatory: Uglies, Pretties, and Specials. Through Tally’s eyes, we learn of the lies that are necessary to sustain this new society and question which is more important – individual freedom or the health of the planet as a whole. As Tally says in Specials, “Freedom has a way of destroying things” (356). This is a question that is never fully answered in the series nor by me. Westerfeld does a really excellent job of representing the flaws in both systems to the point that it becomes an unanswerable question.
All of the books are really catchy, in a very young adult fiction way, though that is not necessarily a bad thing. I had a hard time getting into the first novel, because of the slightly immature style, but once I got used to it, I really couldn’t put the novels down. If you can get past the irritating syntax that the characters use (i.e. It is so irritating-making), the writing really shouldn’t be a problem.
The novels really make you think about the nature of our civilization, the significance of beauty (if everybody is beautiful, then is anybody beautiful?), and the structures that make a government work. Because this novel is meant for young adults, it’s more accessible to the readers, giving them more opportunities to delve into the issues at hand and really think about what’s going on. It also gave me a framework to think about other, more complex dystopias that I’ve read, which was very valuable.
I think my favorite thing about these novels is the representation of Tally Youngblood. Tally is no Bella Swan or even Hermione Granger. She is strong and self-sufficient when she needs to be but also weak and flawed. She never breaks down crying into the arms of some stronger male, though she does question herself and accept help. She is an adolescent dealing with the affections of two different love interests but also a true protagonist, making things happen and leaving her mark on the world. The possibilities of her characters are no more or less restricted than those of her peers; her strength does not come from her gender or her background but from a secret place within that it is implied everybody may have but only some choose to access. She is a fantastic heroine because she manages to be both heroic and relatable which is all the better because she was imagined by a man.
Oh, and there’s a lot of falling. In Pretties, Tally reflects that “Sometime it felt like her life was a series of falls from ever-greater heights” (will find page number and edit) and she’s not kidding. She is constantly falling from high places but never getting hurt, a nod to the technological advances that have been made in the novel. This aspect of the novel is a bit overdone, largely because it doesn’t really contribute to the plot and gets redundant. Ah well, nothing’s perfect. Except for Pretties’ faces.