Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Off the Shelf: Uglies -- a dystopia

Hurrah, Hurrah -- this post marks my 100th post at the Eagle and Child. And to commemorate this milestone, I'll tell you about the all new weblog "Writers Read" -- Its a weblog of writers from a Christian worldview offering their reviews of books from all across the spectrum. This review of Uglies by Scott Westerfeld is my latest post on the weblog, but you'll want to check out the other reviews too -- Fiction, Sociology, Leadership. It's all covered there.

Now, for the book under consideration:

Imagine, if you will, a post-apocalyptic world. Cities have become tightly controlled autonomous units, insular islands unto themselves. A new social order has emerged, purportedly to eliminate war, competition and strife. The state claims children 11-16 as their own, raising them up in a loosely controlled boarding school. Everything changes, however, when those children turn 16.

Everyone receives "the operation" on their 16th birthday -- the operation that changes them into "Pretties". The operation whitens teeth, strengthens muscles, makes skin flawless, and brings all features in conformity with pre-determined standards of beauty. The operation evens the field - eliminating the root of competition, jealousy, and strife. When everyone becomes Pretty, then no-one is ugly.

All the pre-op children are "Uglies". They live in the dormotories of Uglyville -- but Pretties live in New Pretty Town, where all the newly made Pretties party like it's 1999, so to speak. New Pretty city provides its residents a carnival of non-stop pleasure and indulgence, seemingly free of charge. After several years, the pretties receive the second operation to become "Middle Pretties" where they take on jobs, they raise children, and they appear wise, all knowing, and comforting. And in old age, they receive yet another operation to be a "late pretty" and live out your waning years in pretty retirement. This utopian culture creates bliss.

But things are not what they seem. The world of Uglies hides a dark secret. And our heroine, Tally, has this secret thrust upon her. Tally longs to be a pretty so she can be reunited with her best friend Peris, who mysteriously has cut her off completely after his operation. He never visits or calls. And when she sneaks into New Pretty City to seek him out, he appears to have changed. Soon Tally meets Shay, another pre-operative ugly, who talks about people who live in the wild outside the city -- people who run away before getting the operation -- people who reject the life of the city to live life on their own terms. The week before their 16th birthday (for they were both born on the same day), Shay disappears, and the action picks up pace. The revelation of the dark secret changes Tally's perspective on her world.

I won't spoil the rest of the plot, but it is worth knowing that Westerfeld has crafted an all-nighter read. The subject matter is not new territory: exposing the unfulfilling nature of hedonistic utopias has been well covered by Farenheit 451 and Brave New World just to name two. Westerfeld's approach for how society got to this point, however, is novel and frighteningly plausible. Also, in Tally's struggle to understand the wilderness dwellers hints at social commentary about stewardship of the earth. Christians, who are charged with stewardship of all creation, may find these hints interesting, but not terribly overpowering.

Other major themes that will appeal to Christians are the questions about substance vs. appearance, personal choice vs genetic destiny, and centralized control vs individual autonomy. Unfortunately, Westerfeld seems to excise any kind of spiritual component from his world -- simplifying his story in a way, but also missing out on the real root problem: the human sin nature. There is little in the way of Christian edification in this book, but it is a helpful lens on how a secularist dabbles with these issues.

This book is the first part of a trilogy (second part, titled Pretties, to be reviewed in a few weeks, the third part due out this May). Bottom line, this is entertaining mind candy that has just enough complexity to be a good conversation starter. It's not likely to become an enduring classic that you should keep on your shelves for years, but it is an enjoyable read nonetheless.

Soli Deo Gloria