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This site is dedicated to exploring children's fiction.
I write it, read it, teach it and increasingly feel the need to talk about. Please feel free to join the conversation otherwise it will be a monologue and they can get quite dull.
My current project is concerned with transformations in children's writing.
If you have any suggestions or favourite books which deal with transformation please let me know.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Uglies:Scott Westfield

I have returned to this as part of my project on transformations. I loved this on a first reading because of the idea, though a little googling has revealed that is was inspired by an episode of the 'Twilight Zone' which was itself based on a short story as the author is gracious enough to admit http://scottwesterfeld.com/blog/2008/01/number-12-looks-suspiciously-familiar/
It remains a great idea - children over a certain age live in dorms until at sixteen they get to choose their appearance, become 'Pretties' and accepted into the adult world.
Racial differences, height and weight extremes are all normalised to create a society of beautiful happy party people. Unfortunately the cosmetic surgery that produces this aesthetic equality also results in brain damage, the loss of curiosity, anger, creativity so that while war and ecological destruction are avoided many of those essential qualities that characterise humanity are also destroyed.
Tally Youngblood is an ugly who is marking time before she can join her best friend, Peris, in New Pretty town until she is befriended by another ugly, Shay who is even more talented than Tally at pulling 'tricks' or breaking the rules. Shay teaches Tally to hoverboard and tells her of David an older ugly who can guide them to the Smoke, a place where people can live outside of civilisation without having the operation.
Just before her sixteenth birthday Shay leaves to find the Smoke and gives instructions that Tally could follow. Tally wants the operation but is denied it by Dr Cable, an enhanced Pretty, a Special, unless Tally follows Shay to the Smoke. Tally is given a necklace which she must use to inform the Specials when she has reached her destination.
Tally overcomes a number of obstacles to reach the Smoke and after a time falls in love with David, the leader, meets his parents and learns of the damaging effects of cosmetic surgery. She destroys the necklace but in so doing calls in the Specials who capture everyone but David and Tally. Shay is transformed into a Pretty and, though David's mother has designed a pill to counter the effects of the operation, she will not give it to Shay without her consent. Ridden with guilt, Tally decides that she must be the guineapig for the pills and gives written consent before giving herself up to the Specials to be transformed into a Pretty.

This is the first of a very successful series which is fast paced and tightly written. I was a bit disappointed by the rather two dimensional world and heavy handed ecological messages, but was suitably engaged by the story. What I found interesting was that while physical transformation results in a changed personality both occur in an almost mechanistic way. The transformation is the work of science, the lesions on the brain a by product, and while the effect of beauty on the ugly is mentioned repeatedly, there is no real opportunity to explore the impact on the individual because all are a changed and all lose themselves in the process. I don't think the message is necessarily that all people who have plastic surgery are brain damaged or that beauty must be allied with idiocy more that the pursuit of the ideal physical shape might lead to the undervaluing or even the deliberate suppression of more important qualities. The idea of becoming beautiful is however a very powerful notion and in allowing Tally and Shay to become beautiful I do feel Westerfield has his cake as well as eating it. Yes Tally becomes beautiful to save her friend and ugly David is a hero, yet not being a teenager I'm not sure if fear for the potential loss of Tally's personality overrides reader satisfaction that she will finally become beautiful.
It is an intriguing concept and a fun read but it is a book about surfaces, about appearances in a rather superficial way. It is a story about betrayal and reparation, about growth in the sense that Tally recognises that beauty is not the only important quality, but, in the end the story is less about the tyranny of aesthetics than the tyranny of the Specials and I think I wanted something a little more nuanced.

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