Uglies opens in a world where every teenager undergos extreme surgery on their 16th birthday to mould them into hypnotic and hypnotised 'Pretties'. Cazz Blase reviews a four-part 'trilogy' with plenty to say about body image, cosmetic surgery, citizen journalism, celebrity, the environment and, of course, growing up

, 3 September 2008

Uglies takes part in a remarkably sterile and ordered world. Scott Westerfeld’s post-apocalyptic trilogy followed hot on the heels of the US science fiction writer’s highly successful Midnighters series, and the apocalyptic Parasite Positive (also published as Peeps) plus its follow up, The Last Days.

Hanging over this world is the fate of ‘The Rusties’, a society that predates the world of Uglies, whose people destroyed themselves and their environment through their dependence on oil and raping of the natural environment.

As Westerfeld told the readers of Check Your Pulse, a Simon and Schuster book newsletter for teens, the Uglies trilogy is set a long time later, but “Alas, it’s a society that has been made paranoid by its history, and hates human innovation and difference. Which often makes it a less-than-fun place to be a teenager (except for the hoverboards.)”

Cover of UgliesUglies

“Is it not good to make society full of beautiful people?”

– Yang Yuan, New York Times, quoted at the start of Uglies

The story begins with 15-year-old Tally Youngblood, a gawky but rebellious teen who can’t wait to be 16. But in the Uglies world, turning sweet 16 acquires a sinister connotation, because it is once they are 17 that the ‘Uglies’ (teenagers up to the age of 15) undergo radical surgery (or “surge”) to turn them into ‘Pretties’. Once they have “turned pretty” they move out of their dorms in Uglyville and into the more luxurious mansions in New Pretty Town, where life is one long party and everyone is devastatingly, hypnotically, luminously gorgeous.

Tally’s best friend, Peris, has turned 16 not long ago and, alone and bored in her dorm one night, Tally sneaks out, crossing over into New Pretty Town to see him, even though it is strictly against the rules. There, she meets Shay, another 15-year-old whose friends have already had surgery, and the two of them become best friends, despite their differences. Although Tally can’t wait for surge, to become pretty, and to join her friends again, Shay doesn’t want to turn pretty at all. Tally is convinced that she is ugly, she feels she is ugly, and she has been brought up to believe she is ugly because “biology says” so, but Shay isn’t interested in biology; she hates the mindset of the ugly world, and she knows that there are other ways to live. She says: “We’re not freaks, Tally. We’re normal. We may not be gorgeous, but at least we’re not hyped-up Barbie dolls.”

Over time, she begins to challenge Tally’s preconceptions, but only slightly, leading to a huge argument just before the girls’ 16th birthdays. They part in fury, Tally having accused Shay of being afraid to grow up, Shay having accused Tally of being brainwashed.

When Tally is waiting at the hospital on her 16th birthday to be admitted for surgery, a hovercar mysteriously arrives and takes her away. There is a problem, a Special Circumstance: Shay has gone missing. She never turned up for her surgery, and Tally must find her and bring her back before she herself is allowed surgery. The choice is stark: either she can betray her new best friend, or Tally, the girl who loathes her appearance to such an extent that she has been counting the days until she turns 16, can stay Ugly forever.

We are heading toward a world in which lots of people will get to decide how they look. That will change what we think of as beautiful, and what beauty means to us

From this point onwards, the choices Tally makes, or is forced to make, affect not only her and Shay, but the worlds of the Uglies, Pretties, and even the sinister “Cruel Pretties”, the Specials.

Westerfeld was inspired to write the Uglies trilogy by a story by Ted Chiang, entitled ‘Liking What You See: A Documentary’. He and Chiang exchanged emails about the story, and Westerfeld describes his input into the manuscript of Uglies as “invaluable”. Chiang’s story was described by Westerfeld as being “about technology that allows people to switch off their ability to see human beauty, so they can concentrate on the more important aspects of who people are. Fascinating stuff.”

Also in his mind was the knowledge that “we are definitely heading toward a world in which lots of people will get to decide how they look. That will change what we think of as beautiful, and what beauty means to us.” He added that he wanted to “write a future in which these technologies were fairly common”. This led him to develop the notion of the Pretties, who have a standardised form of beauty comprised of big eyes, big lips and perfect symmetry. “Somewhere in the backs of their minds, people were always looking for these markers. No one could help seeing them, no matter how they were brought up. A million years of evolution had made it part of the human brain,” writes Westerfeld, through Tally, in Uglies. “The big eyes and lips said: I’m young and vulnerable, I can’t hurt you, and you want to protect me. And the rest said: I’m healthy, I won’t make you sick. And no matter how you felt about a pretty, there was a part of you that thought: If we had kids, they’d be healthy too. I want this pretty person…”

But Shay believes evolution and biology have it wrong, and she knows somewhere she can run to in order to escape the Ugly world, somewhere where the people live by different rules. She hopes that Tally will have the guts to follow her, but, when she does, neither girl is ready for the full ramifications of her actions.

Cover of PrettiesPretties

“Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless.”

– John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice, I, quoted at the start of Pretties

Tally emerges at the end of Uglies repentant and changed, angry and with a plan to try to undo some of the mess she has created. But she appears, at the start of Pretties, to have forgotten about it. We see, through her eyes, the world of the Pretties, and we meet new friends, the ones Shay and Tally saw leave them behind when they were Uglies. The Pretty world, whilst inane and revolving around parties and leisure, is also divided into cliques, and Tally and Shay are Crims: Pretties who were notoriously wild in their pre-Pretty days. Life seems to be fluffy and sweet, in a brain-numbing kind of way, until an Ugly turns up at a Pretty party bearing pills, and a reminder of Tally’s promise.

If the polarisation of Pretties and Uglies wasn’t enough, it is in Pretties that we are introduced to the idea that being Pretty isn’t enough. Westerfeld hinted as much through Shay, and other, later characters in Uglies, but in Pretties its implied firmly that it isn’t just Shay’s mates in the Smoke, or some of the Uglies, who think so: the Pretties are having their doubts as well. This leads to some extreme behaviour on the part of the Pretties who, we know from Uglies, have been modified in ways that are much more subtle than their visual appearances.

In Uglies, the 15-year-old Uglies and Smokies were fighting for free will and a new world order, in Pretties, they are still doing so, but they are also fighting for the contents of their own heads, and the right to a fully functioning brain. Surge isn’t an option, and the powers that be have their own reasons for keeping the Pretties vacuous and narcissistic, placid and happy, so Tally and her friends try to find new ways to think, to regain control and, ultimately, to “rewire their brains”. These new ways include risky behaviour, self-starvation, and – finally – cutting themselves. And then there are those pills… and once again, Tally is on the run to save the life of a friend, or so she thinks… and once again, betrayal is a distinct option.

Cover of SpecialsSpecials

“By plucking her petals you do not gather the beauty of the flower.”

– Rabindranath Tagore, ‘Stray Birds’, quoted at the start of Specials

Pretties revealed not only that beauty is not all it is cracked up to be, especially when everyone else in your world is beautiful too, and you have the mental capacity of a kitten. But it also introduced the central theme of Specials: sometimes, beauty can be really, really ugly.

Specials refers to the group of special agents we first encountered in Uglies. It was Special Circumstances who stopped Tally having her operation on her 16th birthday, and who sent her after Shay. The Specials have been modified extensively; they are lean, mean fighting machines with a superiority complex, and little in the way of humanity or compassion. They are powered by adrenalin and rage, barely need to eat or sleep, and are led by the sinister Dr Cable, a cross between Dr Frankenstein and certain bureaucrats in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Dr Cable is not just a scientist with incredible political power, she is also a woman in pursuit of perfection, and the Specials are her finest creation. Currently, the Specials are engaged in wiping out a resistance movement that has infiltrated Uglyville and New Pretty Town, and is intent on freeing the residents from their mental stupor. The resistance movement comes from out of town, but nobody knows where their base is, and those damn pills keep on popping up…

Also, the new batch of Specials are a rebellious lot, inclined to act on their own, with or without approval from Special Circumstances, and they have nasty habits – they like to cut and brand themselves.

She realises that she is trapped and, worse, that her chemical makeup is being verbally dissected, bit by bit

Tally’s mission has become increasingly muddled by this point. Once she admired the Smokies, now she is meant to be destroying them, but she has doubts… serious doubts.

The techniques that the Smokies are using in their campaign are not familiar to her, not what she remembers, and the lines between the good guys and the bad guys are becoming increasingly blurred as the Smokies take on techniques used by the Specials, and the Specials take on techniques used by the Smokies.

The battle isn’t just between the Smokies and the old order, Tally realises, it’s much more personal than that, and she must look much closer to home if she wishes to find answers. Once again, the decisions she makes are not just going to affect her, but everyone else too.

There are many shocking moments throughout these three books, but Specials is the book where Westerfeld really excels himself, and given the type of books Uglies and Pretties are, that really is saying something. For example, there is the moment when Tally, who has followed the runaway Pretties to Diego, finds herself in a padded cell in that city, because the liberalising forces in charge of Diego are concerned about “morphological violations”:

“With a sickening feeling, Tally realized what the wardens had done. Thinking she was seriously hurt, they’d brought her into hospital for deep scanning, and what the doctors had found had made the authorities very nervous.”

This part of the book is disturbing on a number of levels, firstly, because Tally has managed to convince herself up until now that she is still herself, underneath all the surge and mind control, but is now being told that she is simply a weaponised tool of the city, and her brain impulses are not her own, but also because, despite her superhuman abilities, she comes very close to panicking. She realises that she is trapped and, worse, that her chemical makeup is being verbally dissected, bit by bit. The incident leaves a long-lasting impression on her, making her question who she is, and why she is who she is. The battle for Tally’s mind is on, and as friends become enemies once more, enemies become friends, and Tally finds herself being assisted by the last people she would expect to help her. During the course of the three books, she has changed beyond measure, and not just because of the surgery; she has grown up. She finds herself in the position, at the end of Specials, to make her own decisions without being manipulated. Unlike her friends, she doesn’t make the expected choices. There is a twist here, one which is to have some impact on the final book of the series, Extras.

Cover of ExtrasExtras

“You all say you need us. Well, maybe you do, but not to help you. You have enough help, with the millions of bubbly new minds about to be unleashed, with all the cities coming awake at last. Together, you’re more than enough to change the world without us. So from now on, David and I are here to stand in your way. You see, freedom has a way of destroying things.”

– Tally Youngblood, from the end of Specials, quoted at the start of Extras

Westerfeld had not originally intended to pen a fourth book in the series, but, as he acknowledges in the dedication for this new book, Extras is for “everyone who wrote to me to reveal the secret definition of the word ‘trilogy’.”

This book begins three years after the events of Specials, and the opening chapter has a familiar ring to it: 15-year-old Aya Fuse, bored and restless, is waiting for night time. Unlike Tally Youngblood, she has no plans to visit New Pretty Town to see a friend who has just had his operation, no, instead she is using her hovercam to climb out of the 13th floor window of her dorm in Uglyville to crash a party in New Pretty Town, her intention being to kick a story that will seriously enhance her face rank.

The old order has fallen, but, it seems, some things never change – whereas 15-year-old Tally longed to be Pretty, 15-year-old Aya longs for fame. In the new order, Aya’s city is run on a reputation economy; merits are given to those who work hard, as determined by the Good Citizens Committee, and these can be exchanged for goods. Face ranks, however, have skewed things in favour of the famous, creating a celebrity economy. “Face ranks were for the rest of culture, from artists to sports stars to scientists. You could use all the resources you wanted, as long as you captured the city’s collective imagination.”

To keep the face ranks fair, everyone from the youngest child upwards is given their own “feed” and, thus, like a more scary combination of YouTube, MySpace and Facebook, their own way of journeying up the face ranks, which operate like a fame list. Aya has low face ranking, so she is an Extra – anonymous and unimportant. She earns merits through babysitting and schoolwork, and seeks to increase her face rank by being a kicker, someone who “kicks”, or puts up on their feed, stories about famous or interesting people.

Extras begs some serious questions of citizen journalism, and journalism ethics, as well as turning the tables on the kickers, making the stalkers the stalkees

The problem is, her stories, whilst interesting, don’t create the right kind of interest to boost her face rank. At the start of the story, she’s chasing a story about a new clique who ride mag-lev trains at speeds of 150-300 mph, and as she gets sucked into their world, she finds her previous assumptions about fame are turned on their head. This clique, The Sly Girls, don’t want to be famous, in fact, they go out of their way to remain hidden and anonymous, changing their names and having surgery to be Plain Janes (non-descript). They have their own rules, and they don’t like kickers.

The relationship that Aya has with Moggle, her hovercam, is very similar to the relationship Phillip Pullman’s Lyra has with her daemon in His Dark Materials. This is, on one level, slightly disturbing because Lyra’s daemon was, literally, a part of her, whereas Aya’s hovercam is simply a floating camera, albeit one she has given a name to, which also appears to have developed its own personality. But she has become so attached to it that she feels lost whenever she is separated from it, and that is strangely touching. When the Sly Girls demand, on their first meeting, that she dumps the camera in a lake to prove she isn’t a kicker, she reacts as though they’ve just asked her to dump her comfort blanket or murder her best friend.

As her relationship with the Sly Girls progresses, she starts to question her own obsessions with face rank, but she never fully lets go of her thirst for fame, or pursuit of a good story. Unlike Tally, there is something almost pathetic about Aya Fuse, in the nicest sense; she is a likeable character in a lot of ways, but her core belief can essentially be broken down to: without fame, I’m nothing; if I don’t have fame, I don’t exist, I will disappear.

When the Sly Girls stumble across a secret even bigger than them, Aya’s story goes nuclear and, just as she’s in the throes of enjoying her fame, she gets a message from the most famous woman in the world:

“Run and hide.” It says, “We’re on our way.”

Tally Youngblood is set to return.

But the Tally Youngblood Aya meets doesn’t match up to the legend, and, even more challenging for Aya and her friends is the realisation of certain uncomfortable truths. Have they really discovered something terrible, or have they got it all horribly, horribly wrong?

This final volume of the series takes on the power of celebrity and, with it, the phenomena of celebrity stalkers. Celebrity is a profession in Aya’s world, and the celebrities are stalked by hovercams and paparazzi cams. It also begs some serious questions of citizen journalism, and journalism ethics, as well as turning the tables on the kickers, making the stalkers the stalkees. As with the three previous books, everything happens very, very quickly, with lots of high-octane action and fast chase scenes, and that seems to be one of Westerfeld’s key strengths. Not only can he weave difficult themes into his books, but he can do so in a way that’s subtle, and which doesn’t dampen down the pace of the story. He also has a great ear for dialogue, particularly slang, creating across the series innumerable variations of teen speak, each subtly different from the last. Another key strength, which is evident right from the first book, is that he doesn’t pull his punches, and that he’s comfortable enough with his characters to make them do things that he knows the reader wouldn’t want them to do.

The Uglies trilogy raises some very important questions about cosmetic surgery, notions of beauty and perceptions of beauty, also notions of celebrity, celebrity worship, celebrity stalking, citizen journalism and journalism ethics, but Westerfeld (wisely) does not present any easy answers. Also, as important as these themes are, there is a strong undercurrent of environmental politics running through the series, depicted by the ways in which this civilisation, so haunted by its past, can’t help but start to repeat it. At the same time, the conclusion of the series is strangely hopeful, and even Tally can see something worthwhile and worth believing in, even if she does think Aya’s city, with its merits and face ranks, and perpetual cameras, is “insane”.

As Westerfeld told Check Your Pulse, Uglies “isn’t about dire warnings, it’s about thinking things through. The more we think about this stuff, the better our choices will be.”

Cazz Blase is half hoping someone will adapt Parasite Positive and The Last Days for film or TV, whilst at the same time suspecting that they would probably make a hash of it. She also thinks the Uglies trilogy would work on film or TV, but has similar reservations

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