Among the many YA science fiction novels, author Scott Westerfield and his Uglies trilogy offer an interesting story in a dystopian setting and a strong female protagonist. (Warning: This review contains spoilers. It is advised that the books be read before the review.)
The first book, Uglies, opens with the sentence, “The sky looked like cat vomit.” With this ambitious start, readers are catapulted into the future world of Tally Youngblood and her beauty-based society. When a person turns sixteen, they receive a special operation that turns the patient stunningly beautiful and are sent to New Pretty Town, a place where it is essentially their job to have wild parties and fun. Until then, a person is an Ugly, and forced to live in Uglyville.
Tally is only several months away from her sixteenth birthday, and she is thrilled by the prospect of becoming a Pretty. However, she soon becomes friends with another girl named Shay, who does not want to have the operation. Before Shay turns sixteen, she runs away. Now Tally is pressured with either helping the authorities, known as Special Circumstances, to find Shay or stay ugly forever. The choice Tally makes sets in motion a chain reaction that continues into the following books, Pretties and Specials. Throughout the series, her eyes are opened to the world around her and to surprising truths, some wonderful, and some less so.
Part of the trilogy’s success is due to the intriguing questions it explores. The trilogy, and the first book in particular, asks readers just how far would they be willing to go to attain beauty and the worry-free life. The dangers of pursuing pleasure are revealed when Tally has to deal with the consequences of betraying Shay and the community she ran away to, the Smoke. Not only does she turn her friend against her, but her decision results in the deaths of several Smokies and the destruction of their homes. Readers are forced to wonder what they would have done in Tally’s place, and what they would consider sacrificing for perfection.
Furthermore, in Tally Youngblood’s future, her society was formed after the cataclysmic collapse of the previous people. Known as the Rusties, they were a “primitive” society that fought many wars with one another, wrecked their environment and were entirely reliant on oil as a fuel. Ultimately, it is their dependence on oil that ruined the Rusties. An oil bug developed that caused oil to explode, which led to the fiery demise of many Rusties and their cities and left only ruins behind. Through this background, environmental commentary is cleverly worked into the mix.
There is another disturbing question that the series asks readers to consider. Towards the end of the first book, Tally discovers a secret about the operations: Not only do the doctors make a person beautiful, but they also make tiny lesions in the brain, ones that change the patient into a vapid, empty-headed Pretty. This is a policy enforced by Special Circumstances and the government. As Tally and the readers learn, the brainwashing is done to keep Rusty appetites in check, so that people will be less likely to fight one another and too preoccupied with partying and clothes to want to cut down trees or pollute. Special Circumstances is willing to do whatever it takes to prevent a repeat of the Rusty disaster, even if it means giving the population brain damage without consent. This encourages readers to ask if brainwashing really is the only way to ensure we don’t fight with each other or destroy our environment, and if Special Circumstances is actually “good.”
Westerfield’s writing is engaging and vivid, always making for fun reading and fast-paced action. The world and its future technology is thoughtful, with a feasible system for hoverboards and hovercars to work, and the society is also brilliantly imagined. Slang such as “bogus” and “bubbly” is frequently used, especially in Pretties, and there are cliques of people with different interests and obsessions, mostly revolving around appearance. This appeals to people by using a world and society that is futuristic, and also somewhat similar to their own.
Uglies also has the joy of claiming a strong female protagonist. Tally Youngblood is a clever problem-solver with plenty of determination and spine. She is always on a quest to learn more about her world, and how it can be better. Whenever Tally makes a mistake or suffers a setback, she picks herself up as best as she can and tries to right her wrongs. These are traits that are not seen often in female characters, and it makes for a refreshing read.
Unfortunately, nothing is without flaws, and the Uglies trilogy is no exception. Some parts of the story are more predictable than others, and the series is not without cliches. Tropes such as “hot boy convinces girl she’s actually beautiful” and the dreaded love triangle are used. This dulls the originality of the series and makes it a little too easy to predict certain elements of the plot.
The second book, Pretties, has issues with narrative pacing. Tally has become a Pretty in order to test out pills that should be able to reverse the lesions made by the operation. She does take the pills, and once she discovers they work, she is supposed to escape into the wild once more. However, she spends most of her time in the city with her new love interest, Zane, and does not leave until half of the book has gone by.
Another problem with the trilogy is the inclusion of cutting. Some characters take to cutting themselves to reverse the effects of the Pretty operation, and the descriptions can be somewhat graphic. Possibly this was used to show how unstrung certain characters had become, but the cutting was shown to be helpful, which it is not in real life. Self-harm is never necessary either, and Pretties appeared to suggest at certain points that it was necessary. This was something that needed to be addressed in a better way, but ultimately was not.
Furthermore, Zane was an flat and poorly-developed character. Besides one piece of backstory, he does not have much of a past. This one part of his story that readers do get to hear about also does not seem to impact him or occupy his thoughts. While understanding and kind, he does not have any other notable attributes that define who he is. Zane does experience pain and sickness later on in Pretties and Specials, but it seems to impact those around him more than himself. Overall, he is an unchanging character in a story where characters undergo trauma and other radical changes to emerge different, and usually more mature.
In conclusion, the Uglies trilogy has a relatively well-planned plot with an imaginative future world, society, and technology. While some aspects of the series are less stellar than others, it is still a worthwhile read that raises thoughtful and debate-provoking questions. (3.9 out of 5 stars.)