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Friday, August 21, 2009

Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

Title: Uglies
Author: Scott Westerfeld
Reviewed Format: .PDF
Pages: 428
Release Date: February 8, 2005

Tally Youngblood is just shy of turning sixteen and looking forward everyday to becoming pretty. Becoming pretty isn’t some state of mind or anything (except for very rare circumstances) predetermined by genetics; when you turn pretty, you undergo cosmetic surgery to conform your physical features into something that is supposedly universally appreciated as beauty: big doe-y eyes, plump lips, soft features. The alternative is living the rest of your life as an “ugly,” something Tally’s determined not to do. Uglies are “gawky and nervous, unkempt and uncoordinated” (p 77). In fact, uglies sound just like regular adolescents struggling in the limbo of puberty and lashing out with hormones by doing “tricks”--childish stunts pulled only by uglies.

Unfortunately, one of the worst thing Westerfeld’s invented government has done to our futuristic dystopian society is brainwash everyone into believing the ugliness of everyone who doesn’t undergo the surgery. And ugliness is bad. Being an ugly also means being natural and subject to the whims of genetics, which also includes physical markers of ethnicity and race. The government has decided race and ethnic fighting must be stopped and so at some point in the past, have convinced most of the population that the operation to turn pretty is really an effort to find world peace. With everyone more or less looking the same, whatever do they have to fight over? Organized religion or personal beliefs aren’t taken into account--I guess when you make everyone look the same (I couldn’t find if Westerfeld ever mentioned what skin color everyone gets to have once they’ve changed), ethnically associated things (except food) go by the wayside.

So really, the operation is an exercise in convenience and a seemingly successful attempt to rid the world of unnecessary evils by reducing the things we can choose to fight over.

Tally’s fallen for this 100% until she meets Shay, an ugly who shares her birthday and is counting down the days with dread. Shay doesn’t want to turn pretty. In fact, she’s got a plan that will help her avoid it forever and wants Tally to join her. But it involves leaving the security of Tally’s small, sheltered Uglyville and the pampered life she’s lead. She doesn’t believe that pretties are just docile pets who live only to party and have fun. Tally sees her best friend Peris, who’s already turned pretty and left her behind, having fun without her and living, if possibly, even more of a pampered life. But could Shay be right? Could there be more to life than just being pretty?

With the rising popularity of cosmetic surgery and especially with teens wanting to undergo the knife to fix physical problems that may inevitably fix themselves, I liked the idea behind Uglies. What I didn’t like was the constant references to the world ugly. I almost forgot the “uglies” were actually quite normal and began to believe in them as being Ugly with that capital u, marking them as distinctly problematic. This hit me the most when Tally watches the new uglies (called “littlies” up until they go to live in the dorms around age eleven) stepping into her building, their “ugly little faces” (p. 76) being nothing more than the faces of scared children coming into a new, alien environment.

But I think Westerfeld intended the reader to disassociate the word ugly with its normal definition to give it an alternative connotation however much it remains a shallow translation of the original. Ugly is an ugly word and Tally is quite repulsed by all things ugly.

Despite everyone’s eagerness to turn pretty, there are exceptions. Some people don’t have to have the operation. Just like a weird translation of reality where the subjectiveness of beauty disappears for certain models, celebrities or other people who look attractive to a large percentage of the population, pretties can be born Pretty. Some people have all the luck.

There’s also an emphasis on pretties being somehow more significant than uglies. The childishness of uglies is played up against the important, “grown up” pretties (the fact that they party all day long is overlooked because well, they’re pretty). This propaganda is supposed to inspire loyalty in the uglies, to stay and have their operation so they too can grow up and be important and do more important things than going around pulling pranks with each other to blow off steam. Like partying.

Of course, there are darker implications to this and if you read the book, you’ll find out all the twists in the plot that force Tally to continually lie to her friends. The twist was interesting and made the book worth finishing. I even want to finish the rest of the series, but can wait awhile. Westerfeld’s writing is extremely accessible, so accessible I wondered if he intentionally lingered on certain things longer than necessary just to cater to a younger audience. Tally’s journey out to the Smoke went on far too long and the between time from her arrival and the inevitable invasion was an eyeblink--too short, but I understand the focus wasn’t supposed to be on the interval. It was the interruption that mattered.

In any event, it’s the story that’s important here and the implications Westerfeld writes into the plot that make the book interesting. It bothered me that he was too presumptuous and condescending of today’s society, easy to condemn and criticize with blanket statements of wasteful practices and ignorant behaviors (without explaining the mechanics of his world that does not rely on oil, but still has plastics to mold people--all people--into pretties), but if you want to enjoy the story for what it is, you have to unhinge your own belief and buy into his for the duration of the book. I did and I winded up liking the book. It could have been shorter, the characters a bit more relatable and sympathetic, but overall it was a good fun read.

In the end, I was left with this very important thought from Tally: “If only people were smarter, evolved enough to treat everyone the same even if they looked different. Looked ugly.” (p. 97)

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