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.
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?