By Scott Westerfeld. Published in 2005, 2005, 2006, and 2007, respectively.
When I was about eleven years old, I decided I was far too grown up for children’s books. I refused to even set foot in the Young Adult section and instead wandered with proud determination through general fiction. I didn’t always truly get the books, but I unnerved a few middle-school teachers by declaring Larry McMurtry’s epic, violent, Pulitzer Prize–winning Lonesome Dove my favorite novel, and—let’s face it—that was part of the reason I was reading it. (To be fair, though, I never would have gotten through the eight-hundred-page tome if I didn’t genuinely enjoy it.)
Anyway, Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series is exactly the sort of thing I would have dismissed out of hand as a teenager but also exactly the sort of thing I would have enjoyed if I hadn’t been so vain. The writing itself is serviceable, if not particularly inspiring, but the characters are interesting, the ideas are provocative, and nothing is black-and-white. I would have appreciated that then, and I appreciate it now.
At the outset of the series (which is best classified as science-fiction), fifteen-year-old Tally lives in the city dorms, where she is educated on the environmental collapse that wiped out the previous civilization (ours, we assume) and the radical surgery that she and her fellow students will undergo when they turn sixteen. The surgery strengthens their bones, fine-tunes their muscles, and reshapes their features to meet the highest standards of beauty. This, they are told, makes everyone equally attractive and thus eliminates the prejudices, jealousies, and self-hatred that tormented their predecessors.
Tally is looking forward to her transition from Ugly to Pretty, but when she falls in with a rebellious girl named Shay who wants to escape the city, Tally’s transformation is jeopardized. She follows Shay into the wilderness and eventually learns that there is more to the city—and to the surgery—than anyone there lets on, and she must make a choice about who and what she wants to be.
What I enjoy about the series is that even when the government’s “cure” of a human problem is twisted and repellant, its original diagnosis is often spot on. And its critique of the previous fallen civilization (ours) as violent, tribal, and wasteful has real bite. Philosophically speaking, Westerfeld is rarely glib. He clearly enjoys imagining the ramifications of advanced technology—for both good and ill—and the world he creates is an compelling, immersive one.
Tally herself is compelling as well. She’s no wunderkind: she merely wants what most fifteen-year-olds want—to fit in, to belong, to be loved—and that basic need butts up against the terrible choices she has to make. Tally isn’t born a hero; she becomes one, and that’s the more interesting kind.
Uglies and its sequels are at their best in those moments of interior conflict. I confess I usually skimmed over the more physical altercations, the hoverboard chases and the like. Westerfeld isn’t a vivid enough writer to make those come alive. He’s better at linguistic cleverness, creating the junky slang of Tally’s community in which adjectives have become nouns, nouns have become verbs, and telling verbal tics have sprung from unexpected ground. (In the immortal words of Calvin to a bemused Hobbes, “Verbing weirds language.”)
The series isn’t any kind of literary masterpiece. It’s a quick, breezy read, nothing too taxing. But determined, resilient Tally and her star-crossed friendship with Shay and their eerie, body modification–happy world have stuck with me, now that I’m secure enough to give it a chance and appreciate what it has to offer. The Uglies series will never replace Lonesome Dove in my heart, but it’s a good read all the same.