Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I finally caught up with all the others on my feed and read this book. I don’t know if it was part of some book club or if it just spiraled as each person I follow recommended it to each other. This is another book from s book bundle I’d bought (I think Humble Bundle).
This was an example of one of times where the book cover kept me from reading it earlier rather than encouraging me to read it. The title “Uglies” together with a sheet over someone’s head and the blue fingernails; I thought it was going to be some teen drama book or something I wouldn’t enjoy. Instead I found a YA dystopia that kept me glued to the page. As a testament to Mr Westerfeld’s writing ability, although I had fun pointing out dystopia tropes in my status updates, he proves that tropes are not necessarily bad by incorporating them in an exciting way. So, if you’re familiar with dystopias (particularly of the YA variety) you’ll be familiar with the story beats, but not necessarily with the execution.
In this world, humanity has devolved from countries to City-States with controlled population growth. The title refers to everyone under 16 who is just a natural human being. Since no human meets the perfect definition of pretty, they’re taught that they’re all ugly. At their 16th birthday they get an operation that changes their features to put them in alignment with a scientific definition of beauty. The beginning of the narrative doesn’t really seem to have any dystopic elements to it other than the fact that the surgeries are engineered to use psychology to over-ride conscious thought. So, for example, the police have their featured sculpted in such a way as to command respect. You just look at them and immediately want to obey. The new pretties are engineered to have overly large eyes, which we know triggers a protection response (that’s why babies — in real life — have large eyes compared to their faces). Other than that, there’s very little to complain about — sure you lose a modicum of originality, but there’s no discrimination based on looks or race because those things have been engineered away. It’s not until we get to the trope of the outsider rebels that we find out the true reason it’s a dystopia.
One of the fun things for me about dystopian novels (and hyper futuristic novels as well) is when the main characters discover our ruins and try to puzzle out what we used stuff for or to understand our “savage” ways. A good author does this in a way that subtly reminds us not to be so judgemental about, say, the ancient Babylonians. The same way we look at them is how future generations might look at us. In the case of dystopias, it’s also interesting when the author explains how the world ended up this way. Especially now with most of the world under liberal democracy, it would take something pretty drastic to cause us to set up an alien way of life. Mr Westerfeld does a good job of creating the conditions that led to this world.
I also enjoy his new world slang. Unlike A Clockwork Orange, it actually makes sense and is very easy to tell from context what the characters mean. The slang of the pretties, in particular, is a lot of fun.
Unlike many recent series I’ve read or seen, this one does not end the first book on a satisfactory note that you can walk away from. The Matrix or The Hunger Games both end in such a way that you could be happy with the first entry and never experiencing the sequels (probably a good thing when it comes to The Matrix). Uglies, on the other hand, ends on a complete cliffhanger. If you read this one, expect to go on to the next one right after. I’ll probably get to it soon.
Unlike other recent YA books I’ve read this one has no under-age warnings to me. There’s some kissing, someone bathes naked in a river with zero sexual context, and there’s mention of the fact that people have sex, but nothing close to a sexual encounter. Only the prudest of the prudes would have any issues with this book.
If you haven’t read it and like YA dystopia, READ IT! (It’s zombie-free and vampire-free)