Uglies – Book List

An interesting young adult series that deals with something everyone, young adult or otherwise, is constantly struggling with: self image. I didn’t love all of these books, particularly the last two, but the series is still worth reading.

Reviews

Uglies

by Scott Westerfeld

Uglies  cover image
ISBN:
9780689865381
Format:
Paperback, 425 pages
Published:
Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing, 2005

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

With Uglies, Scott Westerfeld creates a creepy adolescent dystopia where "pretty" is decided by committee, and everyone at sixteen receives an operation to become pretty. Until then, one exists as an "ugly," good only for learning and playing pranks, banned from the parties and glitz of New Pretty Town. Of course, being a dystopia, there's more sinister workings afoot. Being pretty isn't all it's cracked up to be.

In many ways, Uglies reminds me of The Giver. It has the same type of a dystopia, and the protagonists of both books discover the dystopian nature of their society and rebel. Both Lowry and Westerfeld show us the dangers of enforcing "sameness" to prevent conflict. That's about where the similarities end, however; I'd say that Westerfeld does this much better than Lowry.

Indeed, the dystopian aspects of this book are its best features. Its characters are nothing to sneeze at, and its story is rather bland. Unlike The Giver, however, Uglies has a feature-rich world. Not only do we know what life is like in the city, full of recycling and plenty, but we see the ruins of "Rusty" civilization (presumably contemporary civilization, yes?) and even learn what caused its downfall. As with any post-apocalyptic novel, Uglies isn't about how civilization falls but what happens after (hence the "post-"). And that's where it gets creepy.

Tally and Shay offer contrasting views on the society in Uglies. At first, Tally is pro-society and Shay is the antiestablishmentarian. Tally's attitude and her debates with Shay show us how society indoctrinates children with the idea that there is a biologically-determined standard of attractiveness that is universal for the entire human species. Moreover, making everyone pretty is the only way to enforce equality and peace: "So what if people look more alike now? It's the only way to make people equal."

It's rubbish, of course, and Shay points that out. Biology certainly plays a role in attractiveness, but there's no "default" concept of pretty; beauty is very much an artifact of culture. Since everyone is raised to believe otherwise, Tally has difficulty accepting this notion. The entire structure of ugly life, from the dorms to the pejorative nicknames for each other, encourages an individual to view him or herself as ugly. Tally is obsessed with getting the operation because she's been raised from childhood to believe she's ugly. Shay, on the other hand, rejects her idealized self: "That's not me. That's some committee's idea of me." The irony, of course, is that the plot conspires to cause Shay's capture and transformation into a pretty—along with the initiative-robbing brain lesions that come with it.

So we get to see Tally and Shay switch positions, with Tally gradually adjusting to the idea that what she considers "ugly" is in fact "normal," sometimes even "beautiful." It's just diversity. Shay, on the other hand, undergoes a form of mind-alteration to accept her status as a new pretty. It's not subtle, and it doesn't have to be.

As the back cover of the book says, "Everybody gets to be supermodel gorgeous. What could be wrong with that?" The media feeds all of us visions of "ideal body images" that we all internalize (to some degree). Beyond the philosophical squickyness of wanting everyone to look the same, there are more subtle problems inherent in freely-available (indeed, mandatory) cosmetic surgery. Many people elect—by which I mean, pay a lot of money—to undergo such surgery, which uses technology somewhat primitive by Uglies standards. We can argue long and hard about why these people do it, but at the end of the day it's clear that some people, if not many people, want to change how they look on the outside to feel better about themselves on the inside. And for those people, the possibility of technology making that process easier and more widespread must seem awfully tempting.

That's why I appreciated that Westerfeld has no easy answers. When Maddy develops a pill that will cure the brain lesions and pretty Shay refuses to take it, Tally wants to forcibly cure Shay. This is a complex dilemma. On one hand, as Tally argues, the Specials have done something to Shay's mind, altered her being. This would just be a corrective measure. On the other hand, Shay remains a functioning individual, with the ability to think for herself (after a fashion). She chooses to stay pretty; forcing her to take the "cure" would make Tally et al. no better than the Specials.

I always respect a book when it makes me uncomfortable with myself, when it challenges me to examine my values and see if they are truly as open-minded and tolerant as I like to think. Uglies does just that. I admit, I had to resist screaming at Maddy, "Just give Shay the damn pill! She's been brainwashed!" Maddy has a point. Some people want to be pretty. Just because I happen to prefer intellectualism and academic pursuits—read: I am an elitist who loves his ivory tower—doesn't mean any other lifestyle is invalid. As much as it pains me to admit it, maybe some people are truly happier living "pretty" lives that I perceive as vapid. Thus, what's important is not which life one chooses to lead, but that one has the ability to choose in the first place. The true dystopia is not about body image but, as always, about free will.

From this, it's clear that Uglies is more than just a rollicking post-apocalyptic adventure. It's a good example of what science fiction does best: exploring issues of our contemporary society through fictitious ones.

Alas, the story that carries this crunchy nugget of philosophical goodness is not as impressive. It's your standard run away, live-in-the-woods sort of response to learning you live in a dystopia. Then the government finally finds the location of your sanctuary, and you're all captured, so the last remaining free rebels have to find you before you get turned pretty. Would make a great video game, I'm sure. As a book, the plot is solid but unsurprising. Predictable twists and a healthy amount of foreshadowing make for something that, while not exactly formulaic, is quite recognizable.

Also, there is a dearth of characters, with Tally, Shay, and maybe David receiving almost all of the character development. Dr. Cable is hardly a sinister villain. Tally is not a very complex girl, at least not at first—nevertheless, I will concede that she grows and changes as she learns more about the Smoke and the truth behind becoming pretty. Shay begins as an interesting companion, someone who will act as a catalyst for Tally's awakening. Unfortunately, Westerfeld squanders her potential by consigning her to a love triangle along with Tally and David. No one character seized my interest.

Uglies doesn't take enough risks. Its themes, as I've noted, are stellar; but mired as they are in a mediocre plot, I can only appreciate the book rather than admire it. Call it competence, craftsmanship, whatever you will—Westerfeld has it, enough to make Uglies good rather than great, adequate instead of amazing.

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Pretties

by Scott Westerfeld

ISBN:
9780689865398
Format:
Paperback, 370 pages
Published:
Simon Pulse, 2005

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

My review of Uglies stands for Pretties, because they are pretty much the same book.

Scott Westerfeld further fleshes out his post-apocalyptic adolescent dystopia. We get to see New Pretty Town from "the inside," because Tally Youngblood is now pretty—and vapid, at least until a letter from her past self jogs her memory that there's more to life than flash tattoos, parties, and cliques. Yeah, sounds like high school.

So Tally embarks on a quest to free herself and several other pretties. They plot to escape from New Pretty Town and rejoin the New Smokies. But Special Circumstances is keeping a close eye on Tally. Dr. Cable, our old nemesis from Uglies, drops by and offers Tally a spot in the Specials, revealing how the entire society is designed to control the masses while filtering out intelligent, resourceful people like Tally for work in Special Circumstances. Sinister? Yes. Surprising? Not really.

The first chapters of the book would be interesting were it not for the fact that we already did in the first chapters of Uglies. Once again, Tally starts as a "brainwashed" member of society and struggles to find her own individuality and realize that she needs to rebel. If Tally has to start tabula rasa every book, this will be a very long series.

Also, there's a new love interest. He's better developed (er, character-wise, character development!) than David is. Still, my "love triangle" alarm went off in the second chapter or so, and I was wary for the rest of the book. I'm not sure why I'm so cynical about the relationship; perhaps it's just the speed with which it develops.

The other relationship of note is the one between Tally and Shay. Wait, sorry, no, it's exactly the same as the one Tally and Shay have in Uglies. First they are best friends; then Shay learns/recalls that Tally betrayed the Smoke and "stole" David from her; finally Shay undergoes an operation and returns to Tally, freshly-brainwashed and ready to be friends again. As in Uglies, these transitions are far from believable. Shay is much too quick to turn on Tally. Although I'm sure their feud could happen, what with them being teenage girls and all, but I find it hard to believe that they have one conversation and then Shay starts cutting herself. . . .

That's a demonstration of the parallels between Uglies and Pretties and why I'm being so hard on this book. Successive books in a series need to raise the stakes. I can see that Westerfeld is trying to do so, but I'm not convinced he succeeds. It is possible to view the similarities between these books as an intentional parable against believing "the grass is greener" on the pretty side of the fence: pretties can have problems too. Except that only thinking pretties have problems. So this perspective begs the question, especially because Uglies spent so much time convincing us that being pretty was a bad idea.

Probably the best part of the book is the part that I hated when it was introduced. After escaping from New Pretty Town by hot air balloon, Tally and Zane are separated, and she lands in a "reservation" populated by pre-industrial tribes and separated from the surrounding region by a nerve-shock barrier. The tribes worship the pretties and Specials as gods. They are an anthropological experiment, and through studying them, scientists discovered which parts of the brain to damage to prevent violence and initiative.

My gut reaction was to wonder why this reservation was relevant to the plot. Westerfeld quickly cleared that up, however, and soon I gained even more respect for this world that he's created. The reservation adds another level to the wrongness of this dystopia. So I was disappointed when Tally left, and I really wish we had gotten to see more of it.

Of course, once Tally does escape, she's not long for freedom. Soon enough she's back in the hands of Special Circumstances, and this time she won't be made into a pretty . . . she gets to be a Special. While I love watching Tally's transforming from ugly to pretty to Special, the reasons for those transformations are contrived. Once again, Pretties has a narrative that is rough around the edges.

My evaluation of Pretties is almost exactly the same as Uglies—and that disappoints me. There is little net change between the end of Uglies and the end of Pretties: the Smoke is once again dispersed, Tally is once again in the hands of Special Circumstances, Shay has preceded Tally under the knife, and Tally's about to be transformed to the next level of surgical oddity. We've been here, done this. Time to take it to the next level, please.

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Specials

by Scott Westerfeld

ISBN:
9781416947950
Format:
Paperback, 372 pages
Published:
Simon Pulse, 2006

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

I am ambivalent about how Specials concludes the original Uglies trilogy (yes, I know there's a fourth book, and I shall even read it one day). On one hand, it was much better than Pretties. On the other hand, it is still not as good as Uglies.

Specials just didn't grip me. It fell flat, in a quiet, unassuming sort of way. I persevered, poked and prodded at it, begged it to impress me, but it adamantly refused. Although it eventually coughed up a story that might be better even than Uglies', I remain wary about its themes. As a result, while I hesitate to pan it outright, this is a book I can't really celebrate for its pristine quality.

I can see the appeal of Tally's double transformation, from ugly to pretty and then to Special. Westerfeld incorporates many aspects of adolescence—obsession with body appearance, the use of "cutting" to make oneself "feel something," a sense of a sharp divide between those who are "pathetic" or "random" and those who are special—and creates a potent metaphor for the prison that adolescence can be. Yet Specials suffers from the same problem as its predecessors: rather than revealing its themes through story, the story tends to obscure them, leaving me more annoyed than awed.

Consider Dr. Cable, whose transformation has been almost as drastic as Tally's. In Specials, she is revealed as a Knight Templar who uses Tally's mistake as an excuse to go to take control of the city, institute martial law, and go to war with another city. Granted, the motives Westerfeld ascribes to her are coherent with the rest of the plot and compatible with her character. I just can't help being disappointed that the villain wasn't . . . more formidable. Tally defeats Dr. Cable by curing her—presumably, Cable inherited her attitude from brain lesions put there by her predecessors. For someone who is always one step ahead of Tally when needed, Cable always has a convenient blind spot when Tally has to escape.

The other protagonists are equally unimpressive. None of the relationships among the characters seem real. And I'm not talking about the special slang or the irksome appendage of "-la" or "-wa" to people's names. Shay and Tally continue their frenemy dance. Zane gets killed off in a moment that is genuinely tragic, and Tally picks herself up and moves on with stunning alacrity. And then, at the end of the book, she decides to run off with David! To be fair, the book doesn't tell us if they ever move beyond friendship . . . but let's not kid ourselves. I was on Team David from the start; however, I'm dissatisfied with how these parts of the story felt like they were compressed for time (or in this case, length).

There are some good parts of the book, of course. We get to meet Andrew Simpson Smith again—he managed to escape the reservation using fire. Actually, I had kind of assumed the barrier was immune to fire, since it seems like a rather obvious thing to try. Apparently I was wrong. In any event, Andrew's on the outside now and has met up with the New Smokies. They've got access to helicopters, and they have rescued more of Andrew's comrades from the reservation. This is a mutually beneficial relationship, since the reservationists know more about living in the wild than the New Smokies do.

Just as he does in Pretties, Westerfeld sidelines what I consider a very interesting plot element. I'm far more interested in the consequences of freeing the reservationists than I am in whether Tally ends up with Zane or David. Maybe this is because I'm not the target audience here. Nevertheless, unlike his somewhat interesting role in Pretties, Andrew Simpson Smith is little more than a living sign post in Specials. Yet again, this book acts like an impatient tour guide attempting to rush the reader from exhibit to exhibit.

Fortunately, unlike Pretties, this is not simply a re-telling of Uglies wrapped in shiny new scenery. There is an original story here, and it isn't a bad one. Instead, the problem lies with the way it's told. In its haste to tell its story, Specials fails to create the kind of atmosphere necessary to succeed with its storytelling. There is so much to love about Westerfeld's Uglies universe; this is a rare case of the story getting in the way of the world rather than the other way around.

I said at the beginning of this review that I was undecided about Specials' contribution to the Uglies series. I still am. As a book in its own right, however, I'm convinced that Specials is not special. It is a little random.

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