The American cult of beauty is an media phenomena that most of digest with our Barbies at an early age. By the time we’re twelve, many of us are already dying for our own subscription to Seventeen magazine, and by 17, we’re already in a permanent state of body dysmorphia, and the madness escalates apace. Scott Westerfeld’s novel, Uglies takes our societal exces just one tiny dystopian step further — what if adolescence was a State acknowledged stage of ugliness? What if the entire nation were required mandatory cosmetic surgery at the age of 16?
Tally Youngblood wants desperately to be a beauty. Her best friend Persis, only three months older than she, has already been taken for his operation, and she is lonely, mortified, and bored. She thought they’d be best friends forever, but he hasn’t even been back to see her! She’s tired of waiting for beauty, and she misses her friend.
Caught sneaking back the New Pretty Town where Persis now lives (as opposed to Uglyville where she lives in a State-run dormitory), Tally meets another Ugly who gives her a glimpse of another life. She, Tally, doesn’t have to become a beauty. She could stay Ugly, stay herself, her new friend Shay says. But that makes no sense! The surgery actually helps society, everybody knows that; when everyone is physically “perfect,” nobody misses out. Everyone’s looks are based on a symmetrical, statistical average that just makes real what everybody knows — that people with giant eyes are charismatic, convincing, and are afforded advantages by their peers; in the twisted logic of New Pretty Town, imposing this surgery on all creates an egalitarian basis for society. No one is heeded merely because she is beautiful; no idea is disregarded because it originates with someone who is ugly. That’s what Tally’s taught in biology, anyway, and Tally is a believer. She wants to be pretty. She needs to be.
She loves Shay, though, and when Shay decides to find a town called ‘Smoke,’ out in the Wilds away from New Pretty Town, Tally promises not to tell where she has gone. Except that the State doesn’t appreciate Shay going away… and Tally isn’t ever going to be beautiful until she tells where her friend has gone. The State that used to be the giver of every good thing has a dark side. There are the Special Circumstances Pretties, who are superhuman, and super fast. The Wilds aren’t as bad as she’s been told, and the surgery isn’t as benign as it seems. In the end, Tally’s… going to have to make a choice: give up Shay’s whereabouts, and be beautiful, or be Ugly forever.
The first is a trilogy, Uglies is an arresting adventure, which parallels and parables the the psychosis of adolescent insecurities and mocks the American obsession with physical beauty. I got a pretty good idea of what the next novel might cover — the ending is a great cliffhanger, and Westerfeld named Tally’s friend Persis… Iliou Persis is the Greek phrase for “the sack of Illion,” and it is a story fragment that comes in Greek mythology just before the story of the fall of Troy. Persis seems that it might be another name for ‘fall’ or destruction… With that delicious Greek mythological hint hanging, I can’t wait to read the next in the series, which is called, ominously, Pretties…