Uglies by Scott Westerfield is the story of life in the future, a very pretty life that leaves little room for difference in the way we look.
In his novel, Westerfield creates a world where at sixteen years of age, the uglies (all children who have not had their transforming surgery) undergo a series of operations to make them pretty.
“Pretty” is a pre-determined state of being, not left open for interpretation. It is symmetrical, doe-eyed, full-lipped. It’s not too short or too tall, too thin or too chunky. It is average, a very new and pretty average.
People are made pretty to promote peace and harmony in their world. The pretty life is indulgent. It is parties and fun, a sort of twisted Utopia, a world contained to itself. It’s a place where everyone is equal, equally beautiful.
‘Yeah, yeah, I know,’ Shay recited. ‘Everyone judged everyone else based on their appearance. People who were taller go better jobs, and people even voted for some politicians just because they weren’t quite as ugly as everybody else. Blah, Blah, Blah.’
‘Yeah, and people killed one another over stuff like having different skin color.’ Tally shook her head. No matter how many times they repeated it at school, she’d never really quite believed that one. ‘So what if people more alike now? It’s the only way to make people equal.’ (p. 45)
From their first memories, Uglies are programmed to recognize beauty, this certain kind of pre-determined beauty. They are brainwashed.
‘But it’s a trick, Tally. You’ve only seen pretty faces your whole life. Your parents, your teachers, everyone over sixteen. But you weren’t born expecting that kind of beauty in everyone, all the time. You just got programmed into thinking anything else is ugly.’ (p. 82)
It’s easy to see similarities in our own culture.
We are more than the way we look. The symmetry of our eyes the fullness of our lips is not the only thing that makes a person beautiful. Tally, the main character in the story, learns this lesson when she grows close to an ugly, close enough to see him for more than his not-so-pretty face.
Besides the extreme focus on how people look, I noticed Uglies has strong environmentalist overtones.
Outside this pretty world, lies the ruins. The remains of a very ugly, wasteful, archaic way of life perpetrated by the Rusties – those of us living today, or at least in time where things were very much like they are today.
‘But do we have to clear-cut them?’ Astrix asked.
David took a slow breath. “Clear-cutting” was the word for what the Rusties had done to the old forests: felling every tree, killing every living thing, turning entire countries into grazing land. Whole rain forests had been consumed, reduced from millions of interlocking species to a bunch of cows eating grass, a vast web of life traded for cheap hamburgers. (p. 233)
In many ways, the author’s words reek of extreme environmentalism. It’s not only this short snippet from one passage.
I know he’s making a point, but I’ll take slight offense for all the farmers around me who work their bottoms off each day. It’s not just about getting a cheap burger and a chocolate milk.
While I believe in conservation of our resources and respect for our land, I also know that the people who work our land – the farmers, loggers, etc – are often the ones who care the most about the land and resources they are using and working.
That said, my son had to read this book for his seventh grade English Language Arts class and it made an impression on him, so much so that he wanted me to read it. I can certainly see why the story impacted him.
Uglies is thought provoking. You cannot help but draw parallels from this fictitious world of “uglies” and “pretties” to our own world of Photo-Shopping, airbrushing, and facelifts. I think that’s what makes this book really great. You can almost imagine it happening.
The first thing I thought when I began reading Uglies is that this author is wordy. This book is over four hundred pages long and it is the first in a series. It’s written for young adults and is very easy reading, so the pages turn quickly, but I have to wonder if the author couldn’t have said the same thing in half the words.
That’s me being critical, but the fact is that I haven’t published a book and Scott Westerfeld has, so he must be doing something right.
Overall, I enjoyed Uglies. I’m not in a rush to read the rest of the books in the series, but this first book did end with a cliffhanger, so at some later time, I may be tempted to pick up the second book in the series
Here are some questions I’ve been pondering.
Who and what dictates beauty? Is it Hollywood, the runways, advertising?
Don’t we do things in our own society to bring us closer to beautiful? Is that good or bad, and what is the impact of those decisions on the next generation?
When does using our natural resources for our own good (and societies’ good as a whole) become wrong?
Have you read Uglies? Has your child? Perhaps it’s on his/her reading list in middle school.
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