Saturday, August 11, 2007

It isn't the Face stupid: Scott Westerfield's Uglies, Pretties, Specials

Ugglies, Simon and Schuster: New York, 2005.
Pretties, Simon and Schuster: New York, 2006.
Specials, Simon and Schuster: New York, 2006.

I've rather been putting these books off because the entire premise screamed "issue book" and at this point, if I read one more story about how we are all lovely under the skin, and commercial values don't matter, I will sit down and weep, but ironically, it is the degree to which this trilogy is good science fiction that it proves a lousy issue book.

The history of the series is that Westerfield engaged in discussion with Ted Chiang over his stunningly brilliant story, "Liking What You See: a Documentary" (2002). In the story, people have chosen to have their aesthetic judgement and emotional reaction to beauty switched off so that they won't judge their fellow humans by exterior qualities. I wish I could have seen the conversation, because while Westerfield begins with this premise he then completely undermines the premise itself--that's confusing but what I mean is that it turns out to be not the point of the books at all which actually turn out to be about a dystopia in which people are controlled by brain lesions and all the stuff about beauty is a complete red herring.

In Ugglies Tally is waiting to become a Pretty. At the age of 16 she will be operated on and her "ugliness" transmogrified into what sounds a lot like a manga character, in accordance with evolutionary biological arguments about the attractiveness of neoteny. As it happens, her best friend Shay does a runner and Tally is sent after her. Tally meets up with renegades in the Smoke, hangs out with them, has just decided to stay when she accidentally triggers the tracking device. She is brought back and made into a Pretty but before she is dragged back to the city she makes an agreement with the Smokies to be their subject for an anti-Prettying drug because, it turns out, it isn't that al Pretties look the same that makes them happy and docile, it's lesions on the brain.

In the second book Tally is approached with the pills to unprettyfy her. She is scared to take them and Zane, her new friend who has figured out that starving himself and getting very physically excited lifts one above the lesions, takes one to push her to take the other. Unfortuntately his is the cure--nanobites to eat the lesions--and hers is the cure for the cure, so he ends up shaky, ill and dying by the time they escape to the Smokies. This time when the "Specials" (highly engineered cops) arrive Tally lets herself be caught to go home with Zane and save his life. But she ends up being made into a Special.

In the third book Tally runs away with Shay (friend from the first book), now both Specials, in order to help Zane (now sort of cured) runaway to the Smokies, so Tally and Shay can destroy they all. Instead they find Diego, a city never quite as repressive as her own but which has been flooded with the new pills and is now un-lesioned and a lot less Pretty. Tally's city attacks Diego and Tally returns to save Diego from the machinations of Dr. Cable, head Special. She does this and in an unexpectedly weak ending we are told how the whole repressive system collapses.

First let me say that this is mostly good sf. It's well written, well constructed, and in many ways complex. The relationship between Tally and Shay is fucked enough to be real, and I'm only sad that because Poly still doesn't cut it in sf for kids, Zane has to die to free Tally for the prince in book one.

But by book three the motivating impetus for adventure is boring as hell: Tally is always running away to rescue and then being caught for daft self sacrificing reasons. Westerfield seems to want us to think of her as a heroine, but she is actually a hell of a lot more interesting when she is screwing up.

Furthermore, as I have already said, it turns out that the real issue is not the pretty-ness or the way in which we view others, but those lesions, because what they actually do is prevent human desire for aggression and expansion. Non-pretties, clear cut trees, kill animals and grow their population. This thread is much more interesting than the pretty thread but it has the affect of making us rather sympathetic to Dr. Cable. Westerfield knows this: Tally worries about the dichotomy: lesioned and careful about the planet, but a bit dumb; smart, but aggressive and a threat to the ecology. So at the end, when Tally goes to live in the wild to threaten the new un-lesioned if they cause too much damage the effect is a weird combination of irritation at her sanctimony, given that she helped destroy the system, and relief that this isn't an easy ending book in which dystopia gives way to utopia.


Blogger chance said...

It's actually Westerfeld.

7:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, that just saved me reading book II and III - I actually liked book I, but was interested in the idea of physical perfection, sounds like it's not about that after all. Also sounds like another book where kids end up in untamed nature - bad for the kiddies, good for my research..:)

6:27 AM  
Blogger Jesper Svedberg said...

You should try Westerfeld's Peeps (Parasite Positive in the UK) as well, I think you might like it.
It's a rationalized vampire novel of a very science fictional bent and I think he did a really good job of it as well.

12:40 PM  
Blogger MW said...

I've read the first two, but not the third.

Agree on point that Dr. Cable's "you're dumb, but less dangerous" idea is more interesting than the pretty/ugly business, although I like that the p/u is the bait. That felt very realistic, given the number of people I see walking around every day with botoxed faces.

12:05 PM  

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