by SCOTT WESTERFIELD
Blurb (from Amazon):
Tally lives in a world where your sixteenth birthday brings aesthetic perfection: an operation which erases all your flaws, transforming you from an ‘Ugly’ into a ‘Pretty’. She is on the eve of this important event, and cannot wait for her life to change. As well as guaranteeing supermodel looks, life as a Pretty seems to revolve around having a good time. But then she meets Shay, who is also fifteen – but with a very different outlook on life. Shay isn’t sure she wants to be Pretty and plans to escape to a community in the forest – the Rusty Ruins – where Uglies go to escape ‘ turning’. Tally won’t be persuaded to join her, as this would involve sacrificing everything she’s ever wanted for a lot of uncertainty. When she is taken in for questioning on her birthday, however, Tally gets sent to the Ruins anyway – against her will. The authorities offer Tally the worst choice she could ever imagine: find her friend Shay and turn her in, or never turn Pretty at all. What she discovers in the Ruins reveals that there is nothing ‘pretty’ about the transformations… And the choice Tally makes will change her world forever.
* * * * * S P O I L E R S * * * * *
The first LBC Dystopia meeting of 2015 – I think we’re off to a good start! We had an excellent, wide-ranging discussion about this book – talking for longer than I thought we would, as it’s not a long or complex book.
Although several of us did enjoy reading the book, we all felt it was very flawed in lots of ways. Several of us had come across the book on lists of “best dystopia novels”, and we all questioned whether it should have been included on these – none of us felt it should really be listed alongside the likes of Brave New World and The Handmaid’s Tale!
One major point of contention was the main character, Tally. She had no real agency, and never actually takes charge or makes a decision until right at the end, when it’s arguably too late. We found her pretty bland – she doesn’t seem to have any defining characteristics, and isn’t physically described very well. We wondered if that might be intentional: there is a theory that some young adult books have main characters that are intentionally vaguely-written and flat, as that allows the young reader to project themselves in the protagonist’s place.
Several of us thought the book would have been more compelling with Shay as the main character, as she was a lot more interesting! We thought the way David described her as shallow and flighty was rather unfair, didn’t fit with what we’d actually observed of her character, and read like the author just trying to get this more interesting character out of the way.
Tally ‘s relationship with David also felt very rushed and forced. A couple of us had wondered near the start of the book, when Tally and Shay first meet and become friends, whether Shay was being set up as the love interest – we agreed this would have been a much more interesting story!
The world building also left a lot to be desired – we couldn’t understand how this world was supposed to work. If, on turning 16 everyone is given plastic surgery, plus a brain injury that makes you shallow, compliant and interested in nothing but fun and partying, how is anything invented, or manufactured? At what point do you actually train for the career you later have? The world must rely on armies of highly-trained plastic surgeons, so when and how do they actually get this training? Early on in the book it’s mentioned that a small minority of people can’t have the surgery for whatever reason, so have to stay permanently Ugly, and we all wondered why more wasn’t made of this. Some of us had expected the story to take a turn towards a sort of two-tiered society, such as in HG Wells’ The Time Machine, perhaps with the permanent-Uglies toiling in underground slave camps to do all the grunt work for the Pretties, but nothing like this ever came up.
Several points in the story were actually quite offensive. It seemed the author really didn’t understand eating disorders – it’s explained at one point that EDs no longer exist, because everyone knows when they turn Pretty all the fat will be sucked out anyway so there’s no need to starve yourself or make yourself sick to get thin. This made several of us pretty angry – it’s such a gross over-simplification of the psychology of eating disorders! Five minutes on Google would have set the author straight on that point, so we really thought this was an inexcusable error.
We also thought the handling of race was very clumsy: it’s implied that turning Pretty involves removing racial characteristics (skin-lightening is briefly mentioned, and the way things like eye and nose shape are described indicate that the Pretty standard is based on white/European characteristics), but this idea isn’t explored at all, and it’s also implied that erasing all other racial characteristics has Fixed Racism Forever, which is obviously problematic, to say the least!
One member was particularly outraged by the description of the Smokies’ librarian/archivist insisting on using white gloves to handle old magazines, so much so that she actually marked down her score for the book! (For those not in the know, archivists do not recommend wearing gloves to handle old or fragile documents – it’s a bit of a cliche often seen on TV, but is not good archive practice.)
Having torn the book apart, several of us then went on to say that we had actually enjoyed it! We felt the world was at least consistently-written, even if some aspects of it were not that well thought out and didn’t hold up to further scrutiny.
Several of us liked the idea of what had caused the apocalypse that lead to this world – a virus that attacked petroleum, destroying the oil-based economies and societies of the time – although it was then pointed out that this raised problems with the world as presented: how do they have plastic surgery (plastic nose and cheekbone implants are specifically mentioned) if there’s no more petroleum?? We also thought it was unclear how the transition from apocalyptic petroleum-dependent catastrophe to post-scarcity utopia had actually come about.
In general, we liked the presentation of the world in Uglies: there were lots of nice details about technology which appealed to most of us (we were all quite jealous of the hoverboards, although one member seemed more taken with the dehydrated food!) We agreed that as dystopias go, this wouldn’t be a bad one to live in really! Brain injury-causing enforced surgery aside, it seemed like an ok way to live… We did think the idea of people being given brain injuries along with their new Pretty faces, to keep people compliant, felt a bit tacked on – almost like the author didn’t feel like just enforcing surgery to make everyone conform to the same standard was enough of a Bad Thing by itself.
A few of the group had gone on to read the next books in the series, and found them equally entertaining, and a few more said we might read the others if we happened to come across them (although no one felt a burning desire to immediately seek them out). There was a general consensus that Uglies had a good story, decently told, and was enjoyable to read, if not the strongest or most compelling dystopia we’d read.
Find fellow members on twitter by searching for #LBCDystopia