Monday, February 28, 2011

UGLIES

Review of UGLIES by SCOTT WESTERFELD

(first in the UGLIES series)

UGLIES is set in a futuristic world where, at the age of sixteen, each individual undergoes an operation to make them "pretty," an attractive average of all humanity's features. The goals behind the operation are equality and peace; if people look the same, status will not be based on appearance and if the playing field is leveled, there will be less to fight about.

The protagonist Tally Youngblood strikes me as an average individual thrust into remarkable circumstances. Everyone always tells her how amazing she is, but really she often stumbles accidentally into rebellion. Tally is eager for her operation, convinced that her life doesn't even begin until she turns pretty. Her new friend, Shay, is the one who longs to keep the "ugly" body she was born with, and feels discomforted by her lack of choice. Shay is the true rebel, but she drags Tally along for the ride. (Then Tally takes the credit.)

The book is definitely a quick read. The story has a fast pace, and easy flow so that you can fly through the book in a few hours. Westerfeld's writing is so accessible that he makes writing look easy, but if you read closer, you will see how much he has thought through his imagined world. His concepts of predominant futuristic technologies are very believable, though he doesn't overload you with technical explanation (which actually adds to the sense that these technologies are so mundane that people readily accept them). He also has a clear timeline for the average human's life in this world, including government-regulated changes that occur at each step. He has even sketched out a history for what led to this current world and their coveted operation into prettiness.

The themes of UGLIES, primarily beauty, conformity, and environmentalism, are incredibly relevant in our world today. The very nature of the plot raises an almost limitless list of questions about beauty. How much of attraction is rooted in appearance? If everyone looks similar, what steps will people take to stand out? There is also a scene when Tally sees an old magazine (from our time), is disgusted by how skinny the models are, and struggles to believe they were once considered the gold star of beauty. This begs the question: how much of beauty is a socially constructed concept that fluctuates with time and location? Tally's world frequently equates beauty with health, which explains why she finds an underweight person unattractive.

By making everyone look so similar, Westerfeld also raises this theme of conformity. Tally actually wants to conform, very much, but always has friends who push her to fight her instinct to blend in. Conformity does have its strengths, but that's a whole essay in itself! Where does one draw the line? Tally's city began the operation with good intentions of creating a more peaceful, less destructive world. At what point did they go too far?

Environmentalism concerns show up in a big way in this book, because past human failures in a sense created Tally's world. People from our time, now called Rusties, leeched off the earth until they nearly destroyed the planet and all humanity. Only small communities survived to rebuild into Tally's future. The restrictive nature of their government stems from genuine concerns that people will repeat their past mistakes if not rigorously monitored. This tension is a great strength of the book, because, unlike many dystopian works, the government is not a straightforward power-hungry "bad guy." They take away rights to protect humanity, and it is up to each individual to decide if the price of peace can ever be too high.

In summary, this is a quick, easy, enjoyable read, but not to be dismissed or belittled for that. There is ample material here that you can discuss at great length! Read, enjoy, digest.

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