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Goat Heads and Sand Burrs, P. Kirby's Reading Blog

The good, bad, and fugly books I've read.
Uglies - Scott Westerfeld Another variation on the utopia-turns-dystopic vision of the world, where humankind's tendency to slaughter each other is "solved" by repressing our worst impulses. In Uglies, that impulse is the desire to conform to beauty standards. Basically make everyone pretty, eliminating jealousy, and we'll all play nice together. (It occurs to me, that the pressure to be pretty has always fallen hardest on women, something that isn't addressed in the novel.)

Anyway, the solution to worldwide angst (and apparently starvation, etc.) is to make everyone pretty through plastic surgery. For their sweet sixteen birthday, everyone in this society gets made into a flawless, Barbie (or Ken) version of themselves. Of course...every utopia has a seedy underbelly.

My quick impression of Uglies is that it presents a fascinating premise, but falls short on execution. Unlike The Hunger Games, it feels like the storyline was trying too hard to pander to its younger audience, and it consequently avoids any of the deeper questions and cultural implications of a world consisting of anime pretty people.

Of course, anyone who has ever struggled with body image can see the appeal of a world where everyone is beautiful, fully possessed of the perfect symmetry that instantly telegraphs "attractive." In Uglies' society, nature's random assignment of good looks gets blamed for the eventual destruction of the society that was, and the new order that has arisen, where everyone wins in the attractiveness game, is the answer. The implication is that root of [all?] conflict is our desire to be valued for our looks.

Therefore, make everyone gorgeous and you'll have a nice tractable population, right? To the novel's credit, the reader soon learns that this isn't precisely the case. The cheek implants, nose and boob jobs, also come with a variant of a lobotomy. No, this isn't a spoiler. Any astute reader can tell that the newly prettied-up uglies are different people from their former Ugly selves. Vapid, to match their good looks, and with a desire to party that would make Charlie Sheen or Lindsey Lohan green with envy.

Basically, the new society's way of controlling its citizenry is by turning nearly everyone into an airhead. Of course, in order to get anything done, a few members of the society must be "allowed" to retain their smarts. And therein lies the inevitable rebellion....

The basic idea is interesting, but the plot line isn't strong enough to keep this reader from starting to ask questions. Like, how exactly can a society afford to have an entire class of people -- the teen and twenty-something Pretties -- who do nothing but live la vida loca? If everyone is pretty (and stupid), how do people chose their mates? What do the Middle-Pretties, basically, the breeding class, do for a living? Who does the labor in this society? How the hell does their economy work (it seems unsustainable)? My questions may get answered in later books, but the fact that they kept repeating in my mind is a sign that the narrative itself wasn't all that strong.

The fault probably lies with the protagonist. Tally is a sixteen-year-old girl who begins the novel looking forward to becoming Pretty like her best friend Perris, but who ends up playing a willing/unwilling double agent to the "evil" powers-that-be who want to wipe out Smoke, a happy, agrarian community of hippy Uglies, who have forsaken comforts of the city for a life of mosquitoes and poison ivy.

(The very fact that an all-powerful government, possessing all manner of advanced technology, needs a sixteen-year-old kid to find a group of glorified campers, is a Grand Canyon-size plot hole. I mean, couldn't they just follow the campfire smoke? The people of Smoke are growing crops and raising livestock. Anyone with access to rather simple thermal imaging technology should have been able to find them in a few days.)

Tally, isn't precisely unlikeable, but, despite the novel's attempts to deepen her character, she isn't much more than a young girl with a crush on a cute boy. The reader is supposed to understand that Uglies' world of bland beauty is somehow wrong, but the novel does a piss-poor job of actually demonstrating the problems inherent to a population stripped of its phenotypical variation. Thematically, there's some crunchy-chewy philosophical stuff available to the narrative, but the plot is largely devoted to Tally's twee conflicts (the romance). What this story needed was a character more like Shay, Tally's friend, an analytical thinker, someone who was already pushing the boundaries, questioning the perfection of her utopian society. Instead, Tally is largely a passive observer who is dragged along by the story's events.

Three stars because, despite the weak handling of complex issues, the story did make me think about the many ways in which utopian societies will eventually crumble under their own perfection.