The view from my reading pile.

Books: Uglies, by Scott Westerfield September 9, 2009

Filed under: book review — stackscene @ 4:32 pm
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I’d been hearing good things about this book for quite a while before I got around to reading it, but I hadn’t heard much about the plot, which was kind of nice, for a change. The thing that kicked me into finally reading it was the publisher (Pulse, the teen imprint from Simon & Schuster) doing a promotion allowing a free e-book download of the book, partly as publicity for Westerfeld’s next book, Leviathan, and probably also to keep people interested in this series. A note on e-books: I don’t actually have a Kindle or any of the other cute e-book readers, I read e-books on my computer (as God intended!), and don’t read them very often. I occasionally get into sort of an e-book jag though, because I love reading on my laptop and knitting away. So yes, I was pleased when there was a hand knit sweater in the book, presented as something nearly sacred in the world of easy and disposable things, and yes, the irony was not lost on me that I was reading it as an e-book on a screen.

ANYWAY. Now that I’ve said all that I should maybe fill you in on this book, so you’ll know if maybe you’d like to read it too (oh, and the free e-book download ended September 5, sorry. Thought I’d better say that before people go looking for it.)

In the not-too-distant future of Uglies, beauty has been perfected, and society has been segregated into three sections. Children live with their parents (Crumblies or Middle Pretties) until they turn 12, at which point they are moved into a town of their own. It’s a pretty sweet set-up in some aspects. The kids all live together in big dorms, and they still have to go to school and have electronic minders keeping tabs on them, but they’re afforded a lot of freedom too. Science has fixed a lot of the problems of our current world, with pollution being pretty much a thing of the past, and poverty and hunger are completely eradicated, thanks to some interesting tech, which is glossed over more than a hardcore science fiction fan might appreciate, but I was ok with it. Learning how the maker technology works isn’t really the point of the book, you really just have to understand enough about how this society works to contrast it with our current world, and with an outside world that comes along later in the book.

I said earlier that beauty has been perfected, and it’s a pretty interesting concept. When the kids turn 16, they’re taken away from the Uglyville, given extensive plastic surgery, and turned into a “Pretty,” then sent to live in New Pretty Town until they get a bit older, are given another surgery, and become Middle Pretties. Everyone looks pretty much the same, with giant anime eyes and the most symmetrical features possible, bones are smoothed and shaped, eye color is enhanced, hair is made as glossy and lovely as possible, etc. Creepy as hell, right? But here was where it really got interesting for me. When I started the book and began to understand the system Westerfeld has set up, I was a little bit bored. It feels like territory that’s been covered many times before, and I think even with our intensely appearance-based society most teens would still be pretty freaked out by the idea of looking like everyone else. So instead of hammering home why it’s bad to look like everyone else, Westerfeld gives us some pretty compelling reasons why it might be good to make everyone look the same. The children are taught from a pretty early age that only by having everyone be beautiful in the same way can society have true equality, and the idea is basically that because they’ve perfected these surgeries and now give them to everyone, society has moved forward and can stop worrying about appearance so much. It’s clearly a pretty false system, but through the eyes of our main character, Tally Youngblood, it’s easy to see why it’s such a seductive system as well. One sticking point I have with the book is that race really doesn’t come up. It’s briefly mentioned by Tally that people used to kill each other and go to war over differences in skin color, and her teachers have impressed on her that this is stupid and insane, but it’s not made clear whether those different skin tones still exist or if they’ve been eradicated as part of the surgery as well. There’s a fairly typical science fiction trope that in the future, there will be enough inter-racial marriage and breeding that we’ll all be sort of taupy-beige, and a lot of times that’s presented as an awesome way to get past racial inequality. In this book it’s pretty clear that if that is the case, it’s not necessarily a good thing.

Tally spends most of the part being very much a part of this system. It’s another thing Westerfeld does to make us uncomfortable with our assumptions about the system being bad, because Tally’s pretty likeable, and a good kid with a nice rebellious streak in her. As the book continues and Tally is given more reason to question the current system, and maybe even question whether or not she really wants to be pretty, I almost felt a sigh of relief. Of course the system is secretly evil, thank goodness it is! Even here though, the way the Westerfeld reveals the problems within the set up is done really nicely, and the way that Tally is forced to abandon her comfort zone is pretty believable. I don’t want to say too much beyond that for fear of spoilers.

One other issue I have with the book is the fact that it ends on a cliffhanger. Like really really, OMG WHAT HAPPENS NEXT kind of cliffhanger. I know there’s going to be a second book, and I almost can’t imagine any way around the cliffhanger, but if that sort of thing bugs you, be aware of it here. It bugs me, but that’s totally a personal preference, of course.

The bottom line here is that I really enjoyed this book. I like the way Westerfeld has set up his world, and I like the way that the outside comes in, subtly at first and then in a way that our protagonist can’t ignore anymore. I think it’s a pretty fantastic read and great for kids and teens, especially those going through their awkward phase and wishing they could just be pretty.