Thoughts On A Book: Scott Westerfeld’s ‘Uglies’

Spoiler Notes: This post does contain some spoilerish material about Uglies. If you haven’t read the book yet you might want to wait to read this because it mentions a big reveal which is rather central to the plot! I have isolated it in its own spoilery paragraph for the benefit of those who would like to go ahead and read this anyway.

I recently finished Uglies, which isn’t about disability, but does have some themes which I think are disability related, which I used as a justification for writing about it here because I think it’s a really interesting book and it touches upon some intriguing themes and material. It’s actually the first in a series, as I learned when I got to the end and was like “but what happens next?!” and then saw the bit advertising the next book in the series.

The world of Uglies is one in which everyone is surgically altered at 16 to look more or less the same. To look, in fact, “pretty.” This homogenised society is supposed to be less filled with strife and argument because everyone is beautiful and has also had the experience of being “ugly,” and the logic of the modifications is very much based in evolutionary psychology; people are modified to be highly symmetrical and to appear “vulnerable” and so forth.

When the story opens, we are introduced to the lead character while she is still an “Ugly” and eagerly looking forward to the surgery. But she meets another character who introduces her to an alternative: Running away to join a community of people who do not undergo modification. This character, Shay, is very opposed to the very idea of modification, even repulsed by it. Our hero just wants to be pretty and go to all the pretty parties and is very resistant to the whole idea.

As a reader, I immediately felt a parallel here with cure evangelism. In the society we live in, it is assumed that everyone wants to be cured and in fact cures are forced upon us, just like the surgery in Uglies. “It’s for your own good,” the argument goes, and ample arguments are mustered to show you how terrible things will be if you are not cured. In Uglies, children are taught from birth that the worst thing in the world is to be “ugly” and they are presented with “Pretties” as models of perfection.

The “Uglies” give each other nicknames based on supposedly ugly aspects of their bodies. They bodyshame themselves and each other and eagerly look forward to the time when they will be “Pretties.” Once Prettified, people are modified later into Middle Pretties, once they reach adulthood and start working, and then again as they transition into old age, but naturally aged people don’t exist. A society of perfection is hardly a new thing in science fiction, but it’s still interesting to see how different authors play with the concept.

One of the great parts of the book is one in which some sly arguments against evolutionary psychology are presented. Our lead character, Tally, insists that she’s genetically programmed to like the Pretties and that it’s just natural, and one of the characters who  has chosen not to be modified is highly skeptical. As she’s arguing with him, she starts to realize that his unchanged body actually has some appeal of its own despite the fact that he is an “Ugly.” He points out that she’s been taught and trained to hate herself and that her “Ugly” body is actually beautiful in its own right, and she starts to think about how maybe the things she hates about herself are things which will resolve as she gets older and grows into her body.

[Spoilery paragraph!]The big reveal in Uglies is that the surgery doesn’t just modify the body. It also alters the mind. Most people who undergo the surgery are left with  lesions which change their personalities, literally taking parts of themselves away. This, too, reminds me of cure evangelism. It is assumed that a cure holds no costs, that people remain themselves after being cured and thus that everyone should desire to be cured, when in fact this is not the case. The book also points out that some people die during the surgery, just as some people die in medical treatment; these decisions are not without costs.[/spoilery paragraph!]

Uglies unfortunately doesn’t touch upon racial issues very much. I’m hoping that this changes with the series because it seems like an obvious thing to explore in a book series about a society which is homogenised to an extreme degree. Uglies seemed to be leaning in the direction of a whitened world, and I would really like to see some people of colour introduced in later books; the story of this book has parallels with both racial identities and disability, and the erasure of both, along with cultural assumptions about erasure being beneficial or even desirable.

At its root, Uglies is about norming and insisting that everyone fit into that norm, no matter what the cost might be, and having people outside the norm challenge this social attitude. I know that’s something which resonated with me as a reader, and I suspect that the same might hold true for some of you as well.

12 Comments

  1. Thanks for this; I want to pick up that book one day. I do have “Extras”, a book from later in the series about people getting body modifications, but I haven’t read it yet.

    I love finding parallels to disabled experience in fiction – though naturally I’d love to see more overt parallels, and more actual disabled characters…

  2. I will add this to my list of books to read. Why does it feel like an almost certainty that this will be made into a movie? Starring all conventionally pretty people.

  3. I read this whole series last summer, and mostly enjoyed it. There are definite parallels to cure culture, but also to the entire idea of bodily/medicalized perfection.

    The last book, Extras, is set in future-Japan, so race becomes a bit more salient, but isn’t treated with much depth, as I remember.

  4. I read this series over Xmas break this past year… Was pretty disappointed in the ending, but it was okay. Interesting premise, certainly. I’m pretty sure, where race is involved, they mentioned something about everyone being the same race now? I think it might have been some amalgam of current day races. I don’t really remember, though, sorry. 🙁

    As for specific disability, there are a few characters as the series goes on that truly are disabled. It takes an interesting look at ability, disability and what ‘ugly’ is. It also has a lot about who is happier in the end.

    Unfortunately, I got a lot of ~enlightened cripple~ tones from one disabled character in specific, and he was ultimately a learning lesson. :/

    Just a warning for later in the series–I tried to keep it as spoiler-free as possible.

  5. Well I ordered the first book (Uglies) from my local library thanks to the review – fascinating premise!

  6. My daughter’s class is reading the novel, and using it to discuss issues of fitting in, and being compelled to be like everyone else. They’re a year 5 and 6 class, so they’re aged about 10, 11, and 12.

  7. Oh, I can’t wait to see what you think of the next two books, if you read them. There’s some really interesting stuff.

  8. I’m glad to see commentary on this book; it’s one of very few books I’ve read where the ideas were fascinating enough (and the characters compelling enough) to make me completely ignore the slightly clunky prose. Honestly, it’s one of the most interesting ways I’ve seen sci-fi used to explore current societal issues, not least of all because it’s not clear-cut and never comes down on a pro-technology or anti-technology side. They get more fascinating, and more thorny (some might say problematic, especially in a YA series, but I don’t really hold with that), as the series goes on, and I will definitely be curious to see what you think of the next two books. (Maybe I should brush up on the plot, since it’s been a while and it gets even twistier from here on out, and I’m not sure I remember what fols is referencing – though if it’s who I think he’s referencing I might just disagree, heh.)

  9. Wow, the whole set-up of this novel is right out of a Twilight Zone episode. (“The Eye of the Beholder,” to be exact!)

  10. Look around for a book called “Mind Rain” as well (when/if you finish the series) – it’s commentary on the book. I have not been able to find it (I rarely order online as I have no credit card/debit card), so I don’t know what it covers, but it looked like it might be fascinating.

  11. A better look at PWD and Harrison Bergeron is the question of what would they do to those who are on the opposite end of the “average” spectrum – too “dumb” or ugly or disabled. I don’t remember if it’s addressed in the story, but it doesn’t seem like it would have good implications for PWD.

  12. Jasper Fforde’s “Shades of Grey” has a really interesting look – the equivalent of PWD (the greys – people who can’t see color, or can’t see it strongly enough) live in certain places and are allowed to hold certain jobs.

    The greys can be seen as any oppressed minority throughout history, but since it deals with the body, it’s interesting to look at it PWD-wise. Also, PWDs don’t exist in that society, they can fix them quickly.