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Archive for January, 2012

Uglies

by Scott Westerfeld

Synopsis (from Goodreads): Everybody gets to be supermodel gorgeous. What could be wrong with that? Tally is about to turn sixteen, and she can’t wait. Not for her license — for turning pretty. In Tally’s world, your sixteenth birthday brings an operation that turns you from a repellent ugly into a stunningly attractive pretty and catapults you into a high-tech paradise where your only job is to have a really great time. In just a few weeks Tally will be there.

But Tally’s new friend Shay isn’t sure she wants to be pretty. She’d rather risk life on the outside. When Shay runs away, Tally learns about a whole new side of the pretty world and it isn’t very pretty. The authorities offer Tally the worst choice she can imagine: find her friend and turn her in, or never turn pretty at all. The choice Tally makes changes her world forever.

My Thoughts:

This review has been a stone around my neck for far too long.

First, I loved the book! No question it was well written, interesting, and I’m glad there are more in the series and that I don’t have to wait for them to come out. I’m likely going to read everything in every series written by Scott Westerfeld that I can get my hands on. That’s not what was keeping me up at night as my blog lingered, post-less, waiting for me to get past this review. (There were other disruptions as well but the initial stall was definitely the pressure to get this review right.)

It’s a dystopian to be sure but… I think at the end of this book (book one of a series mind you) I can’t bring myself to disagree with whoever is in charge of this dystopia.

The premise: when you reach 16 everyone gets surgery and becomes a “pretty”. Then they spend a bunch of years partying and generally getting along before settling down and becoming happy productive members of society in a job they choose and love. To be honest I don’t have strong opinions on plastic surgery so the idea of a culture defined by looks doesn’t appeal to me but it doesn’t exactly horrify me either. That is not what got my brain spinning to a standstill about this book. So this review will not address that.

*potential spoilers hereafter*

The government has certain methods of ensuring a harmonious population and in many ways it’s pretty horrifying. And yet…

They live with the shadow of human corruption around them, including decaying cities sprawling across devastated landscapes and genetically modified monoculture plants that eat entire ecosystems. They require jobs that do nothing but focus on undoing the damage of our current culture gone wrong. Sometimes that means just stemming the tide when the problems are too great to really ever be fixed. None of what Mr. Westerfeld imagines is particularly far-fetched and in many ways falls far short of the terrible things we’re doing to the planet and all the plants and creatures we share it with.

So now humans are confined to cities where all of their needs are met. Not imprisoned except by a common sense of responsibility to not repeat humanities past crimes against the rest of creation. People are happy, healthy and seem to honestly lead fulfilling lives.

Is the situation more complicated than that? Absolutely, this is not a simple book.

Do the people at the top make huge, life altering decisions on behalf of the rest of the population without their knowledge and consent? Yes. I just can’t bring myself to see them as villains because honestly, we had our chance and we messed up in every way possible.

This is the picture of a world where humanity has squandered its right to freedom as a species to continue as we are. I dislike that the way the culture is structured consent cannot be given and cooperation is ensured through repulsive if invisible measures. The room for corruption and abuse is potentially staggering because the story is told from a POV where balances and checks upon the powerful, if any, are unknown.

I’ve read dystopias that horrified me. Where the old are killed at an arbitrary age and jobs, spouses and futures are dictated without consultation. This is not one of those books. And yet it is fundamentally worse, providing you think humanity should be allowed to do whatever it wants at any cost. Individual human spirit and choice, Ra-Ra, and all that.

Plastic surgery aside the world in Uglies is one that seems to work. It meets humanities needs and mitigates our destructive tendencies. The implication is that humanity wouldn’t choose it if not for the meddling that makes people be good. If we’re really so destructive as a species than forget individual human free will, we lose the right.

Or rather, what’s worse, the loss of humanities right to be a dick or the loss of everything else?

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Today on twitter I noticed that yet another author has made something of a fool of themselves online. I’m not going to link it because it feels like this has become pretty common. To sum up:

  1. A negative review was posted on Goodreads.
  2. The author and/or her agent chose to make negative comments on the review.
  3. The agent and author exchanged words on twitter and certain rude names were slung about in regards to the reviewer and Goodreads users in general.
  4. Followers of said reviewer and other reviewers did not take this kindly.
  5. Sh**storm!

There is clearly a lot more to this but I decided to forgo the Schadenfreude of reading through all the gory details. We’ve seen this before.

We’ve also seen some excellent responses to one star revues like those from Mike Mullin author of Ashfall. See here and here. I far prefer Mr. Mullins brand of response. Good show sir!

This has led me to several thoughts on the matter.

Know how a tool works before you use it.

I refer to the internet. It can be as terrible as it is powerful. When I post on  this blog, when I write a tweet, when I comment on a blog, when I put anything out for the public to read I try to be mindful of what I am contributing because someday I intend to publish. What goes on the internet is immortalized forever. Or might as well be because of archive sites. I want my google-able persona to represent me, not me on my bad days. If an author, or any user of the internet, doesn’t understand that then the results can be unfortunate. (link not writing related but darned satisfying)

I will get bad ratings.

A long time ago I thought I would not be able to handle it when I got a bad review and was fully prepared to just ignore that they existed. Ithink differently now. Everyone gets some bad reviews. All of my favorite authors, the ones I think are perfect and awesome and how-could-anyone-else-not-think-they’re-awesome!!!  *breathe* Yeah, them? They get bad reviews. Authors I think are brilliant get called stupid. Authors I think have lovely prose get called pedantic. The point is even the best get bad reviews. I have no illusions about matching my heroes. So yeah, I’m going to get bad reviews it’s just not as big a deal as I used to think. I hope the positive ones outnumber the bad but there will be some. It’s not the end of the world. Especially because…

I’m more likely to read a one or two star review.

Yup. When I’m on Goodreads I check out the top rated reviews and then I check the ratio of good reviews (4-5 stars) to poor reviews (1 and 2 stars). I’ve found good reviews tell me it’s all awesome but doesn’t always tell me what I want to know. A bad review will go into more of the types of detail I want. How was the prose? Was the subject well handled? Etc. My experience is that a good reviewer doing a one star review is more motivated to give a clear account of why. Two star reviews often want to be nice so they’ll poke around what they didn’t like but it’s usually still pretty clear.

More often than not a bad review does not put me off of reading a book. Sometimes it confirms that the plot is not going to be for me or that the book is riddled with bad writing in which case I’m better off not reading (and adding another poor star rating). More often it lets me know that this book is actually way more to my taste than that of the reviewer.

In the end I think there’s a quote that says it best.

A writer should respond rapturously to bad reviews or not at all.

Most of the time I’d say that last bit won’t fail you.

Note: I tried to find an attribution to the quote but alas my google-fu has completely failed me. If anyone can point me to a source that would be awesome!

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