This first instalment in Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series (originally conceived as a trilogy) about a dystopian society set in highly futuristic civilization plays heavily on some favorite YA-fiction themes. We get a couple of adolescents constructing their own personal identity, there’s the rebellion versus conformity shtick, and a hint of a possible love story. Moreover, this book reads like a hoverboard on a solar power overdose. Unsurprisingly, the rights to the series are already in the hands of a major movie company. There are no real original ideas in this book, but luckily Westerfeld has succeeded in writing a fast-paced book (Hoverboards! Bungee Jackets!), resulting in rollercoaster reading for (pre-)teens.
Tally, 15 years old, eagerly awaits her 16th birthday. When she meets Shay, who doesn’t want to be a Pretty, Tally’s (brainwashed) beliefs start to shake: “What do you mean, you don’t wanna be Pretty?” (insert gasp). For every Ugly, Sweet Sixteen is a landmark into becoming a Pretty. The (very recognizable) cult of being beautiful has been taken to the extreme limit here. During several Extreme Makeover sessions teenagers are submitted to major plastic surgeries that would put Megan Fox to shame, as they are transformed into perfectly symmetrical, gorgeous Pretties.
However, early on in the book we learn that it’s not only a person’s look that is changed. Along with the asymmetrical bones, an Ugly’s personality is crushed so that everyone now conforms to the norms set by The Powers That Be. Everyone ends up looking the same and every Pretty has the same interests: partying it up like the best Paris Hiltons out there (why is it not surprising that one of Tally’s friends is called Peris…). When they reach the stage of Middle-Pretty it’s time to make sure there’s more offspring (littlies turning into Uglies themselves) and to finish off their fabulous life, Pretties become Crumblies (extremely gorgeous old people). For the time being, though, Tally enjoys doing the tricks that all Uglies are up to: basically just adolescent stuff, experimenting with the limits of their belly sensors (which keeps tabs on them) and other transgressive behavior.
Obviously, this typical dystopian storyline is very recognizable. The storyline in which the hero/heroine finds out that their perfect world isn’t so perfect has always been popular amongst authors. Also, the change from child to adult is never an easy one, but in this series it’s basically reduced to a string of operations so that in the adult world ‘everyone is equal’ and discrimination based on looks is banned… One guess… this type of society just doesn’t work. Lots of Uglies start to revolt against this Brave New World and escape to the Smoke, a place where outlaw Uglies, who think that being the same is not ultimate bliss and that it’s the differences between people that make for a humane society, can remain… ugly.
The theme of a dystopian society is hardly groundbreaking, but at least the gadgets are nifty and the names Westerfeld has come up with are kind of cool. But, as if the attack on a (segregated) society based on looks wasn’t enough of a Grand Message, there’s also the almost obligatory environmental warning: The Rusties, that’s supposedly us, destroyed society with their wasteful practices such as burning wood, eating meat, etc. You know, the usual evils of our world. Westerfeld could have toned all of that a bit down though (we get it).
Some of the characters are not really worked out properly either to say the least — I find it quite unbelievable the way Shay makes an almost complete U-turn regarding the Ugly vs Pretty debate. On the other hand, I guess this is what was needed to make up for the emerging love story between Tally and David (this is the first part in a series after all). The book also has Movie! written all over it (not always beneficial), and I’m pretty sure (get it, get it?) that pre-adolescent teens will gobble it up quite willingly. Especially all the futuristic gadgets will score majorly with the pre-teens when they watch this book once it hits the theatres,… no doubt with pretties like Robert ‘Pouty’ Pattinson, or Hayden ‘Cheerleadin’’ Panetierri in the lead roles.