Monday, November 28, 2016

Book Review: UGLIES

Title: Uglies (Uglies #1)
Author: Scott Westerfeld
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Pages: 406

The very first sentence read, The early summer sky was the color of cat vomit. Even though it tried to express beauty in comparison with an unpleasant bodily function, I was not left with feelings of disgust or distaste. 

Perhaps it is true when they say that beauty is relative.

So apt in a novel which packs a punch around the issue of beauty.

Tally Youngblood has lost her best friend, Peris. He has moved to New Pretty Town, after having turned pretty. In this world, turning 16 entitles you to undergo a series of surgeries that will make you beautiful. Being Ugly is of no worth in this world, and that is why on hitting puberty, every boy and girl dreams of turning pretty.

There was something magic in their large and perfect eyes, something that made you want to pay attention to whatever they said, to protect them from any danger, to make them happy. They were so…pretty.

Like our real world, there are all kinds of advantages in being pretty, including being able to sleep as late as one wants to, and enjoying a life of non-stop partying and luxury.

Tally, who lives in Uglyville, sneaks into New Pretty Town to meet Peris. She finds that the friendship is no longer important to him. Tally can’t wait to turn 16 and be a part of that world. On her way back, she meets Shay, another Ugly girl, who shares the same birthday. 

Shay quickly fills in the void left by Peris. The two girls begin a friendship that brings comfort to both as they await their 16th birthdays and their chance to turn pretty. Tally looks forward to undergoing the surgery along with Shay and spending their lives having fun.

But Shay, it appears, does not want to turn pretty. She does not buy into that culture, and even tries to talk Tally into staying Ugly. She tells her of a place called Smoke, where a guy called David has organized a group of people who have chosen not to turn pretty, yet lead happy, unprogrammed lives.

A week before her birthday, Shay decides to run away to the Smoke. Tally refuses to go with her.

And yet Tally’s birthday brings disappointment. Special Circumstances, a group that controls the city, threatens her with a lifetime of ugliness unless she leads them to the Smoke. Tally has promised Shay that she won’t betray her but she has also promised Peris that she will turn pretty soon. Choosing to keep her promise to Peris, Tally, armed with cryptic directions given to her by Shay and a pendant that will lead Special Circumstances to the Smoke, sets out. Now she is a spy for Special Circumstances.

Reaching the Smoke, Tally renews her friendship with Shay and befriends David and the others, looking for the opportunity to activate the pendant and get pretty. Until David and his parents reveal to her the truth about being pretty.

In the Smoke, Tally learns how the Uglies there trade their belongings for food and clothing. Everything has value and history, and here we are rejecting everything for something else, trading the intangible for the intangible.

David’s description of newspapers, like books, but you threw them away, and got a new one everyday, gives us an idea of just how wasteful we are. 

No wonder Tally’s world thinks of us as an idiotic, dangerous and sometimes comic force of history. But as David reminds her, Every civilization has its weakness. There’s always one thing we depend on. And if someone takes it away, all that’s left is some story in a history class.

Pretties have a lot of luck. They are seen as healthy and loved, and preferred as potential spouses. The novel invokes evolutionary biology and how humankind came to equate the beautiful with health and strength, seeing beauty as desirable.

This is truly an interesting world, a world where plastic recycles itself. Tally chews a toothbrush pill and wears an interface ring which lets her interact with inanimate objects.

The story is written from the third person point of view of Tally. In Tally, we have a heroine who opts to do something patently unheroic as breaking a promise and spying on her own friend. She deludes herself into thinking that Shay is misguided and that she must bring her back home.

Set in the distant future, when people like us, who are called Rusties, are long dead. In their History classes in school, young Uglies learn that the past included a time when people killed one another over skin colour, and taller and more good-looking folk got better jobs, spouses, and the best of everything. Sounds familiar?

In this world, the Rusties lived a lifestyle, much like ours, more than 300 years before Tally’s time. It is a lifestyle that demanded constant pillaging of the earth’s resources. The criticism of the Rusties also makes a point about our vacuous entertainment options.

Much of the story felt harsh, like a critique, or worse, like an indictment of our way of living, which has threatened and destroyed our world.

In reading about what Tally thought of the Rusties, I was reminded that, as a people, we are truly Ugly, not for our physical imperfections but for the ugliness that we spread around and leave behind. The Rusties were totally savage, like we are today.

And yet, not everything that the Rusties did was a waste. The railroads have their uses, but Tally still can’t understand their tendency to blast through mountains to fix tracks in straight lines. One particular sentence hit home: Whole rain forests had been consumed, reduced from millions of interlocking species to a bunch of cows eating grass, a vast web of life traded for cheap hamburgers.

Because the locale is so harsh in this dystopian world, the writing feels urgent and true.

The new world is divided into new pretty, middle pretty, late pretty and dead pretty, and keeping watch over them are a group of people known as Special Circumstances.  

This is a world of survivalist tendencies. Dystopian on account of its perceived utopianness.

The book ends on the cusp of a sequel, with Tally receiving a chance to redeem herself and save the others.

I look forward to reading, Pretties, the second in the series.

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