Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies Series

At the beginning of the novel, where an epigraph might appear, is a note from the author, explaining that Uglies was shaped by a series of email exchanges between Scott Westerfeld and author Ted Chiang about his story “Liking What You See: A Documentary”.

At the end of Ted Chiang’s collection Stories of Your Life, the author explains that he was inspired by a study conducted by psychologists, who “left” a college application in an airport and discovered that people were more likely to mail in the “forgotten” application if the photo included was of an attractive person.

One story inspired by another; one story nests within another.

This is true not only when it comes to the reasons that authors write, but readers experience a similar sense of weaving with Westerfeld’s series.

It has swelled to four volumes (as well as two graphic novels, a handbook, and a book of essays), and introduces an assembly cast which sprawls and burrows as readers turn the pages.

Westerfeld Uglies Set Vertical

Simon & Schuster – Simon Pulse, 2011

The actual epigraph to the first part of Uglies is from Yang Yuan” “Is it not good to make society full of beautiful people?”

This is not a new question. In Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam series, Glenn is startled by the faces he sees when Crake takes him out of the Compounds for the first time:

“Asymmmetries, deformities: the faces here were a far cry from the regularity of the Compounds. There were even bad teeth. He was gawking.”

In Uglies (2005), Tally explains it like this, as she looks out at New Pretty Town:

“There was a certain kind of beauty, a prettiness that everyone could see. Big eyes and full lips like a kid’s; smooth, clear skin; symmetrical features; and a thousand other little clues. Somewhere in the backs of their minds, people were always looking for these markers. No one could help seeing them, no matter how they were brought up. A million years of evolution had made it part of the human brain.”

But people are not born pretty; they are made pretty. And there are not only pretties, but new pretties, middle pretties and late pretties. (As well as uglies and littlies.)

“Tally thought of Peris, and tried to remember the way he used to look back when he was Nose. Somehow, she couldn’t recall his ugly face anymore. As if those few minutes of seeing him pretty had wiped out a lifetime of memories. All she could see now was pretty Peris, those eyes, that smile.”

And as readers might expect, questions arise. And the question of the motivation for and the mechanics of maintaining this pretty world leads to still more questions.

“’I wonder why they never come back,’ Shay said. ‘Just to visit.’
Tally swallowed. ‘Because we’re so ugly, Skinny, that’s why.’”

And those questions lead to conflict, internal and external, from the series’ opening pages; the pacing of these books is relentless.

“Tally had spent the last four years staring at the skyline of New Pretty Town, thinking it was the most beautiful sight in the world, but she didn’t think so anymore.”

Plot-wise, read in one-go, this series takes a toll on readers who are accustomed to peaks and valleys in fiction.

From the moment Tally takes to her hoverboard, the pace of this series is set to high-speed, which is sure to appeal to younger readers who might otherwise find books of this length a challenge.

But what makes this series appealing for adult readers who enjoy a good story are the complex characterizations.

(My step-daughter and I agreed that there was no single character we felt we were meant to adopt as a favourite, and when we tried to predict what the author intended to do in later books in the series, we found we could make arguments in favour of contradictory possibilities, largely because characters’ motivations were in flux with circumstances changing quickly for them.)

The heart of the conflict is consistent throughout the series, but the cast and settings shift as the story unfolds.

As readers might expect, the second volume, Pretties (2005), takes us inside the pretties’ perspective.

(But to avoid spoilers, all the quotes which follow will be limited to pronouns rather than names, so that the shifts in narrative voice remain unclear: in a world like this, inherently divisive, not every character will survive.)

“Like her old sweater, she’d remembered ugliness all wrong: [his] face was much worse than her mental image of the Smokies. His crooked smile, his dull eyes, the way his sweating skin carried angry red marks where the mask had pressed against it….”

Identity, belonging, security: thematically,  Scott Westerfeld’s page-turners take on some serious subjects.

“With everything so perfect, reality seemed somehow fragile, as if the slightest interruption could imperil her pretty future. The bed beneath her, Komachi Mansion, and even the city around her – all of it felt as tenuous as a soap bubble, shivering and empty.”

Tension is inherent, at the individual level as the narrative inhabits a variety of experiences, and at the societal level, as understanding grows.

“It felt as if every time she took a step forward into her new life, something sucked her back toward ugly days.”

And even the tension is not straight-forward. In Specials (2006), the story grows even more complex.

Characters with whom some readers will have developed sympathies in earlier books now live very different lives.

Westerfeld Uglies Set Horizontal

Simon & Schuster – Simon Pulse, 2011

“She could see her future now, a clear path with no more reversals or confusions. She’d fought being ugly and she’d fought being pretty, but that was all over – she just wanted to be special from now on.”

And readers are beginning to piece together the ways in which this imagined world might fit with the world readers currently inhabit. (Diego and Londinium: some of the settings offer clues, but no clear answers.)

“Biological warfare had been one of the Rusties’ more brilliant ideas: engineering bacteria and viruses to kill each other. It was about the stupidest kind of weapon you could make, because once the bugs were finished with your enemies, they usually came for you. In fact, the whole Rusty culture had been undone by one artificial oil-eating bacterium.”

The epigraph to part three of Specials is from Pearl S. Buck, introducing a segment titled “Unmaking War”: “One faces the future with one’s past.”

In wartime, the action intensifies and broadens in this volume; characters resurface unexpectedly and some alliances are severed while others begin anew.

But while this continues in Extras (2007), the focus there shifts to a perspective which recasts some of the major events and relationships in the previous novels.

The earlier books contain romantic entanglements and triangles, intact and fractured friendships, but the final book concentrates more on one individual’s experience and one specific relationship.

“She wondered if that was why [he] had come up with Radical Honesty. If you never lied, you’d never feel this trickle of dread in your stomach, the worry of being unmasked.”

Ambition and peer pressure (and honour and betrayal) play out in personal and political arenas, and the hover-board action continues.

“Sometimes it’s fun to change yourself. But I wanted to see what it was like without lies. How a relationship works when you can’t hide anything.”

Readers who want to slow the pace have the option of dwelling on philosophical matters.

“Once you’d told yourself a story enough times, it was so easy to keep on believing it.”

Having spent almost a year on the New York Times bestseller list, and now translated into twenty-seven languages, Scott Westerfeld’s series obviously holds tremendous appeal for a wide variety of readers. 

But it does not only reside in backpacks and on bedside tables, it makes an appearance in school classrooms as well; Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series entertains, but it also raises unanswerable questions and invites readers of all ages to take them seriously.

Have you read any of Scott Westerfeld’s books?

4 comments to Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies Series

  • Sandra

    I enjoyed this series for its creativity but especially for the questions it demanded that its readers examine. I could imagine inspired and spirited discussions in groups of young adult readers. I was compelled to read them all but didn’t enjoy the graphic novels as much: I am not sure why.

    • There really are a lot of big issues in these stories, and yet they’re compulsively readable too. I’m with you on the graphic novels; I really appreciated the idea that they fill gaps in the narrative, and they do raise some interesting questions on that basis (how differently a tale could be, depending who tells it), but they felt very brief to me. Or maybe I was just spoiled by Westerfeld’s chunky texts?!

  • I read the trilogy (I didn’t read Extras) a number of years ago, and it was one of my early forays into the YA dystopian genre. I read them before I read the Hunger Games. I really enjoyed Westerfeld’s book, though maybe it got a boost from not being compared to other books of its genres. Still, I really liked Tally as a character and thought she got an ending that suited her and her story.

    • The interesting thing about the fourth volume is that it offers a different perspective on Tally’s character/achievements. (There is a different narrative voice introduced which affords another angle.) I read Suzanne Collins’ series first, but I am just beginning to unravel the tangle of other YA series that seem (at first glance, anyway) to be similiar. I’m curious about Malinda Lo’s series, which seems to have some connections to these themes.

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