I’ve only seen one episode of The Twilight Zone. In this episode, a woman undergoes a battery of surgeries to look normal. At the end of the episode, viewers learn that this latest surgery has failed: the woman is still hideous. Except that to the audience she is beautiful. Online research led me to another episode where teenagers are surgically altered to live longer and conform to a unified standard of beauty (based on a limited number of acceptable “models”). Uglies (2005), Scott Westerfeld’s dystopic novel, plays similar games of perception.
The novel starts with Tally Youngblood a fifteen-year-old girl desperately waiting for her sixteenth birthday when she will be reunited with her best friend and, more importantly, when she will finally be pretty.
Uglies is set in the distant future after a mysterious global catastrophe precipitated changes to the foundations of what readers would call modern society. Fearful of war and violence cities now operate as independent states (think Renaissance Italy as opposed to contemporary Italy). Isolated and self-sufficient, the cities have agreed to certain standards for the greater good.
New technology ensures that citizens never want for food or luxury items, weapons of any kind are largely illegal, and at the age of sixteen everyone undergoes a series of extreme surgeries to better conform to societal standards of beauty. The logic being that, since humans are preconditioned to respond to certain visual cues in each other already (big eyes are non-threatening, a clear complexion and good teeth indicate that a person is healthy), applying these beauty standards will reduce conflict and create a more harmonious society.
But in a world where everyone is movie-star-gorgeous (oldies like Rudolph Valentino and Greta Garbo are considered “natural pretties”), normal people are so not pretty. In short, they’re ugly.
Things change for Tally when she meets Shay, another Ugly girl, who wants to run away before the operation to a place called The Smoke where people can live like “Rusties” (that would be us basically) in the wilderness without any surgery. As the novel progresses, and Special Circumstances (a government agency) coerces Tally into finding The Smoke for them, Tally is forced to choose what means more: friendship or beauty?
As the plot might suggest, this is a science fiction novel. Just to be clear, the real difference between sci-fi and fantasy is that the technology in science fiction novels could conceivably work if someone ever built it (dragons, most likely, are never going to be genetically engineered so they’re a good indicator of a fantasy novel). At times this leads to more explanation of, say, hoverboard mechanics in the novel than is strictly necessary to the plot but the rest of the book makes up for this small shortcoming.
What makes Uglies great, besides how it looks at cultural values, is Westerfeld’s use of language. The novel is not pretentious or brash. Instead, Westerfeld creates a narrative voice that is really unique—especially for a sweeping sci-fi saga like the Uglies trilogy. The novel opens with Tally observing that “The early summer sky was the color of cat vomit.” That is not, it is fair to say, a typical opening for any novel. Yet Westerfeld moves from that observation seamlessly into the story.
This book is the first in the Uglies trilogy (followed by Pretties and Specials) which focuses on Tally and her city. The scope of each book can largely stand alone, but to get the full story it’s best to read the entire trilogy. Additionally, Westerfeld released a companion book to the trilogy last year called Extras which is set a few years after the trilogy with different main characters.
Uglies is simultaneously funny and frightening, showing how overvalued beauty can be while illustrating how Tally’s world has been conditioned to believe there’s no other way to live. The sections where Westerfeld describes the Rusty Ruins and the end of that era are particularly haunting (and eerily reminiscent of the History Channel’s recent documentary “Life After People”).
Sci-fi book discussions often bring up a writer’s “world building” in reference to how well a writer creates their alternate universe. Westerfeld’s world is built really well. The cities have their own culture, the characters their own slang, but Westerfeld manages to bring in enough references to our own contemporary culture that it’s easy for readers to believe Tally’s world is built on the ruins of our own.