Saturday 23 October 2010

Uglies, Scott Westerfeld

In a world of extreme beauty, anyone normal is ugly.
Tally Youngblood is nearly sixteen, and is counting down the days to her birthday, when she will undergo a series of operations to make her pretty. In this world, it is standard procedure. From the ages of twelve to fifteen, teenagers are classed as "Uglies," live in dormitories and play endless tricks to try to escape the surveillance around them. Once they hit sixteen they are transformed into "Pretties," move across to new Pretty Town and live carefree lives of non-stop partying. Tally's best friend is three months older and is already pretty, and Tally can't wait for her turn. But with just a few weeks to go, she meets Shay, who would rather stay as she is, ugly or not. When Shay runs away to the Smoke, a community of like-minded, grown-up uglies, Tally is sent after her, and discovers some disturbing truths about the pretty life.

The first few chapters of Uglies came across as a light-hearted, rather wacky version of science fiction, where everything is taken to extremes and nothing is impossible. An example of this is on the second page:

"Sweet dreams, Tally," said the room.
 Very Back to the Future, part II, I thought. ("Welcome home, Mrs McFly.") And there are hoverboards,  better known from the same film, whose makers, knowing that they weren't going to predict a realistic 2015, just had a lot of fun instead. At first it seems that Uglies is set in the same sort of world, though much later than 2015. The talking room and bridges are not just friendly messages, but Big Brother style surveillance. Uglies takes a child's dreams of being grown up, ("Mummy, when I'm a grown up I'll stay up all night. I'm going to do whatever I want, whenever I want. I'm going to look just like Liv Tyler/Julia Roberts/Keira Knightley") and explores the consequences of such a lifestyle. The pretties seem to be happy, but it is a superficial happiness and it comes at a cost.

Although a lot of world-building is necessary, Scott Westerfeld wastes no time but expertly weaves the details in with the action, to create a fast-paced, action-packed narrative. He describes ordinary, day-to-day objects, such as magazines, railway lines and helicoptors as if brand-new, seen through the eyes of Tally, centuries after they have fallen out of general use. He explores themes such as personal identity, body image, growing up and the dangers of blindly accepting what one is told, and creates a dystopia to rival those of Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty Four and The Handmaid's Tale. Except for the first couple of chapters, I read this book in a single afternoon and am looking forward to reading the rest in the series. I also discovered that a film is due out next year.

I borrowed this book from the library, in the turquoise edition shown at the top of the page. I don't like this cover much: it looks a bit cheap and tacky - which I found there was a reason for: it is a stock photograph which has been used (though flipped) on another book cover. I also didn't feel it was a fair presentation of the book, except in an abstract, artsy way, and based on the picture for a long time I had the idea that the book was about a high school clique. The red-covered edition, which we sell in the shop where I work, is much more accurate depiction of the story and much better graphics, but my favourite is the US cover, shown  here.


  1. i thought he did an awesome job of world-building and moving the plot forward too :0

    and i agree the UK cover is not my favourite. we get the US one here in Australia.


  2. Oh wow I'd never seen that first cover with the doll body parts before. How GORGEOUS. That really is the perfect cover for this book. Creepy, though.

  3. Great review. I enjoyed the way he portrayed objects common to us too - the helicopter in particular :) Such a simple thing in one sense, but I find a lot of authors get it wrong.

    PS: If you'd like to promote your review, please feel free to link to it on my own review, here :)


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