It has taken me several months to finish Scott Westerfield’s Uglies series. They’re not that long, and I was so intrigued that I wanted to fly through them, but I’ve had to spend the majority of my reading time on comps exam information. Uglies was published in 2006; the books Uglies, Pretties, and Specials originally formed a trilogy, though the book Extras was later added.
The Uglies series tells the story of Tally Youngblood, who is 15 at the outset of the first novel. Tally lives in an unspecified but distant future, after a series of wars virtually wiped out humanity. In her world, at the age of 16, everyone undergoes a surgery to become pretty: a ratio-based, ideal-standard-of-beauty, compulsory surgery that makes everyone the epitome of beautiful. In this society, newly operated on pretties are free to (and are expected to) do nothing but party and play all day. In the initial book, Tally makes a choice to run to the Smoke, an off-the-grid settlement of humans, at the request (read: compulsion) of her city’s authorities.
What Tally finds at the Smoke, the human settlement, sets the scene for the rest of the story. Not only does Tally find a world where work is valued and ugly can be pretty, but she realizes that the surgery performed in her city creates lesions in the brains of those who undergo surgery-making them easier to control and more interested in partying than anything else. And in the next book, Tally has become a Pretty. Now I won’t give you all the details of how and why she gets there, or of how by book three she becomes special (another group of citizens, these with hyped-up surgery to make themselves scary-pretty, without lesions, and with the power to enforce any laws thy choose), but I’ll tell you that it’s worth finding out.
Ultimately, I loved Westerfield’s series. It has moments that falter, certainly. I wasn’t overly fond of Shay as a character for most of the series, and the love triangle in book 1 feels contrived. But it’s smart. I got chills when Tally saw an old, abandoned roller coaster and Shay had to explain to her what it was. Metal is a precious resource for the cities in Tally’s day, and she’s always mesmerized as she goes into any sort of ruins at the way “Rusties” (that’s us) wasted metal and built straight up into the sky–in the last book, this is equated to children’s drawings and constructions. I laughed as Tally discovered an old railroad line and tried to decide what it was for. And my mouth fell open a bit at the city ruins’ descriptions: nature taking over, but the skeletons of the dead still in their cars, trying to escape from a city going down.
And the social commentary in the novels is astounding. Certainly, the books comment on our ideas of beauty and ever-evolving plastic surgery, photo-shopping, and body image. Given their titles and plot, it’s difficult to miss the critique. If it starts to slip your mind though, it’s sooner or later brought back by another realization about the surgery, whether it is a description of bones being lengthened or sawed down, teeth being pulled and replaced by better, stronger versions, or the later discussions of “surge-monkeys,” who get ever more outrageous surgery to stay fashion-savvy.
The glimpses into the Rusty past allow us a chilling view of what it might be like when we are one day studied–a society bent on slowly killing itself, overusing resources and warring with one another, jealous of everything from appearance to possessions and unwilling to live and let live. Tally’s confusion over why Rusties would do this or that, of how they lived, provide a mirror for us to see ourselves, just as her realizations and depictions of her own society act as a lens for us to see the dystopian society in which she lives.
As is a tendency of dystopian novels, we see the future society’s underbelly, and it’s not a pretty sight. The idea of changing everyone’s physical features to be more uniform is uncomfortable in and of itself. Add to that some brain lesions, population control, surveillance (ah yes, did I forget to mention? Everyone is connected to a city interface), and a truly horrific foreign policy, and there’s something for everyone to hate in this society.
The final book, the add-on (aptly termed Extras), wasn’t as a strong a text for me. In some ways, I enjoyed its cultural critiques even more than the others. The city that Aya Fuse lives in, 3 years after Tally managed to restructure the world, thrives on a reputation economy–the more famous you are, the more resources you can use, and vice versa. Everyone has their own “feed,” a channel dedicated just to them. More famous people are watched more closely, which makes them more famous, and the machine feeds itself. Given the emphasis on surveillance and technology here, and my interest in those two things as they relate to young people, parts of this were my favorite of the bunch. Unfortunately, the ending fell flat for me, too outlandish and out of keeping with the series.
Overall, though, the series is one I recommend. It’s one I’d be interested in teaching to students one day, using one or more of the books as a platform for thinking about our current views on society and the self. For now, I’ll be content with studying it.