A Review in 3 Parts: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly in Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies Series

By Rebekah Fitzsimmons

The Good (Part 1 of 3)

Scott Westerfeld’s YA series, Uglies, consists of a trilogy of books: Uglies, Pretties and Specials and a fourth book: Extras, that still belongs to the same universe as the first three books, but features significantly different characters, location and moves ahead significantly in time.  I felt that I needed to break up my review of Scott Westerfeld’s series in part because the four books really need to be reviewed as a whole and in part because I had so many thoughts and things to say about the series.  Overall, I really enjoyed the series and I can see why these books are so popular with young adults (and even the occasional adult, if recent surveys are to be believed!)  From here on out be warned, spoilers abound!

First off, the world that Westerfeld creates is spectacular.  The reader experiences this futuristic, high-tech world through Tally, a 15-year old girl who is miffed because all of her friends have already turned 16 and crossed the river into New Pretty Town, leaving her alone and ugly.  These designations of attractiveness, the reader soon discovers, are not personal judgments, but reflect status and place in society granted by a mandatory surgery given to every individual at the age of 16.  This surgery enhances an individual’s personal attractiveness, based on scientific values (like large, vulnerable eyes, symmetrical facial features, standard height, weight and skin tone) and a standardized range of possible differences.  Thus, uglies like Tally await their turn to be transformed from their natural ugly state into Pretties so they can cross the river and join the unending parties and hedonistic lifestyle that is associated with being a new pretty.  (These new pretties eventually grow up, become Middle Pretties with jobs and responsibilities, then move to the suburbs, have kids and become Crumblies).

It is Shay, a fellow Ugly, who disrupts Tally’s plans.  Shay is likewise alone in the Ugly dorms, but her friends did not all go to New Pretty Town: some of them disappeared into the wilderness.  Shay has been in touch with this group of people who live outside of the cities, in a mysterious settlement called The Smoke. These people know that the pretty-making surgery is unnatural and encourage uglies to run away before they can undergo the operation.  When Shay disappears before her surgery, Tally is pulled into a complex web of politics and conspiracy.  She is brought before the head of Special Circumstances (a surgically and genetically enhanced secret police force) and given a choice: follow the coded directions Shay left her, find The Smoke, and activate a beacon so the Specials can destroy The Smoke for good, or remain an ugly for the rest of her life.  Special Circumstances leader Dr. Cable makes it clear to Tally that she believes Shay has been misled and brainwashed by this group who are determined to destroy their way of life.  Tally sets off reluctantly, hoping to save Shay and herself from these mysterious outsiders and a life of being ugly.

Westerfeld is a master of establishing a mythology and builds a world that feels utterly real while being completely foreign and estranging to the reader.  The cities recycle everything, skyscrapers are built on hoverstruts to conserve building materials and space and even the walls can talk.  The characters constantly refer to the “Rusties” which is code for the reader, indicating contemporary 21st century society.  The Rusties were ultimately destroyed by a petroleum-based virus that destroyed all the cities.  All of the restrictions on travel, education and population are held in place to prevent Tally’s society from becoming just as bad as the Rusties, who consumed the wilderness, burned trees and almost destroyed the planet.  The ecology and conservationist undertone of the novels remains consistent, even as it feels at odds with the rampant consumerism and consumption of the New Pretties.

Once in The Smoke, David (the guy who ultimately comes between Shay and Tally) reveals that the Pretty operation is more sinister than it first appears: while the patient is asleep, the doctors manipulate his or her brain, creating lesions in the areas of their brain that allow for complex planning, cognition and rebellion.  The cities, in an attempt to prevent the human race from devolving back into Rusties has brainwashed an entire civilization. The Smoke was founded by David’s parents, two neuroscientists who discovered the lesions and understood what they meant.  Maddy, David’s mother, has been working on a cure, but fears it is unethical to test it on an actual Pretty, because, in her mind, they can not give informed consent in their brain-altered state.  After the Specials raid the Smoke and capture Shay, Tally decides to sacrifice herself to the Specials and allow herself to be made into a Pretty, so that she can test the cure.

Westerfeld also proves himself to be a master when it comes to creating his villains: the Specials.  They are one part science-fiction freaks, one part master race, with a leader in Doctor Cable who is power-hungry and self-deluded in the most evil of ways.  The way he describes their surgically altered features, like hawks and other birds of prey, and paints their abilities of speed, reflex, strength and balance is terrifying.  The reader eventually discovers that even the Specials are given special brain modifications: the bubblehead lesions are removed and replaced with modifications that make the Specials quick to anger and feelings of ecstasy and force them to look down upon those who are not special.  A genetically engineered super race, bent on keeping those below them blind and dumb makes the rest of the beautiful and desirable world that Westerfeld paints terrifying and sinister.  The fact that most Pretties have never seen a Special and disbelieve their very existence makes their presence in the novels even more sinister.

For me, the strength of the trilogy and its fourth companion book was its emphasis on consequences.  The Specials are clearly the bad guys, and the brain modifications used to keep the population docile clearly terrible.  Yet, Tally and David rightly worry about what will happen once the population is freed from these constraints: will they tear up the wilderness the way the Rusties did?  Tally agrees to betray The Smoke to the Specials, but then backs out on her promise.  The Specials find them anyway, after Tally accidentally sets off their locator beacon, leaving Tally to explain her place in the conspiracy as David’s home is destroyed and his parents captured, along with Shay.  To make up for her betrayal, Tally bravely offers to become a Pretty then test the cure, but while a Pretty, she falls in love with Zane and betrays David all over again.  Unlike other YA novels, there are no perfectly good sides, even the heroes act irrationally and emotionally and what looks like a victory often reveals even more obstacles.  The complexity and ambiguity woven throughout the story makes it riveting to read and helps to explain why the series has been so popular and widely read.  I certainly enjoyed it.

Stay tuned for the next installment of the review: The Bad.

Rebekah is a PhD student.

Categories: Critical Conversations, Reviews

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