Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
With Uglies, Scott Westerfeld creates a creepy adolescent dystopia where "pretty" is decided by committee, and everyone at sixteen receives an operation to become pretty. Until then, one exists as an "ugly," good only for learning and playing pranks, banned from the parties and glitz of New Pretty Town. Of course, being a dystopia, there's more sinister workings afoot. Being pretty isn't all it's cracked up to be.
In many ways, Uglies reminds me of The Giver. It has the same type of a dystopia, and the protagonists of both books discover the dystopian nature of their society and rebel. Both Lowry and Westerfeld show us the dangers of enforcing "sameness" to prevent conflict. That's about where the similarities end, however; I'd say that Westerfeld does this much better than Lowry.
Indeed, the dystopian aspects of this book are its best features. Its characters are nothing to sneeze at, and its story is rather bland. Unlike The Giver, however, Uglies has a feature-rich world. Not only do we know what life is like in the city, full of recycling and plenty, but we see the ruins of "Rusty" civilization (presumably contemporary civilization, yes?) and even learn what caused its downfall. As with any post-apocalyptic novel, Uglies isn't about how civilization falls but what happens after (hence the "post-"). And that's where it gets creepy.
Tally and Shay offer contrasting views on the society in Uglies. At first, Tally is pro-society and Shay is the antiestablishmentarian. Tally's attitude and her debates with Shay show us how society indoctrinates children with the idea that there is a biologically-determined standard of attractiveness that is universal for the entire human species. Moreover, making everyone pretty is the only way to enforce equality and peace: "So what if people look more alike now? It's the only way to make people equal."
It's rubbish, of course, and Shay points that out. Biology certainly plays a role in attractiveness, but there's no "default" concept of pretty; beauty is very much an artifact of culture. Since everyone is raised to believe otherwise, Tally has difficulty accepting this notion. The entire structure of ugly life, from the dorms to the pejorative nicknames for each other, encourages an individual to view him or herself as ugly. Tally is obsessed with getting the operation because she's been raised from childhood to believe she's ugly. Shay, on the other hand, rejects her idealized self: "That's not me. That's some committee's idea of me." The irony, of course, is that the plot conspires to cause Shay's capture and transformation into a pretty—along with the initiative-robbing brain lesions that come with it.
So we get to see Tally and Shay switch positions, with Tally gradually adjusting to the idea that what she considers "ugly" is in fact "normal," sometimes even "beautiful." It's just diversity. Shay, on the other hand, undergoes a form of mind-alteration to accept her status as a new pretty. It's not subtle, and it doesn't have to be.
As the back cover of the book says, "Everybody gets to be supermodel gorgeous. What could be wrong with that?" The media feeds all of us visions of "ideal body images" that we all internalize (to some degree). Beyond the philosophical squickyness of wanting everyone to look the same, there are more subtle problems inherent in freely-available (indeed, mandatory) cosmetic surgery. Many people elect—by which I mean, pay a lot of money—to undergo such surgery, which uses technology somewhat primitive by Uglies standards. We can argue long and hard about why these people do it, but at the end of the day it's clear that some people, if not many people, want to change how they look on the outside to feel better about themselves on the inside. And for those people, the possibility of technology making that process easier and more widespread must seem awfully tempting.
That's why I appreciated that Westerfeld has no easy answers. When Maddy develops a pill that will cure the brain lesions and pretty Shay refuses to take it, Tally wants to forcibly cure Shay. This is a complex dilemma. On one hand, as Tally argues, the Specials have done something to Shay's mind, altered her being. This would just be a corrective measure. On the other hand, Shay remains a functioning individual, with the ability to think for herself (after a fashion). She chooses to stay pretty; forcing her to take the "cure" would make Tally et al. no better than the Specials.
I always respect a book when it makes me uncomfortable with myself, when it challenges me to examine my values and see if they are truly as open-minded and tolerant as I like to think. Uglies does just that. I admit, I had to resist screaming at Maddy, "Just give Shay the damn pill! She's been brainwashed!" Maddy has a point. Some people want to be pretty. Just because I happen to prefer intellectualism and academic pursuits—read: I am an elitist who loves his ivory tower—doesn't mean any other lifestyle is invalid. As much as it pains me to admit it, maybe some people are truly happier living "pretty" lives that I perceive as vapid. Thus, what's important is not which life one chooses to lead, but that one has the ability to choose in the first place. The true dystopia is not about body image but, as always, about free will.
From this, it's clear that Uglies is more than just a rollicking post-apocalyptic adventure. It's a good example of what science fiction does best: exploring issues of our contemporary society through fictitious ones.
Alas, the story that carries this crunchy nugget of philosophical goodness is not as impressive. It's your standard run away, live-in-the-woods sort of response to learning you live in a dystopia. Then the government finally finds the location of your sanctuary, and you're all captured, so the last remaining free rebels have to find you before you get turned pretty. Would make a great video game, I'm sure. As a book, the plot is solid but unsurprising. Predictable twists and a healthy amount of foreshadowing make for something that, while not exactly formulaic, is quite recognizable.
Also, there is a dearth of characters, with Tally, Shay, and maybe David receiving almost all of the character development. Dr. Cable is hardly a sinister villain. Tally is not a very complex girl, at least not at first—nevertheless, I will concede that she grows and changes as she learns more about the Smoke and the truth behind becoming pretty. Shay begins as an interesting companion, someone who will act as a catalyst for Tally's awakening. Unfortunately, Westerfeld squanders her potential by consigning her to a love triangle along with Tally and David. No one character seized my interest.
Uglies doesn't take enough risks. Its themes, as I've noted, are stellar; but mired as they are in a mediocre plot, I can only appreciate the book rather than admire it. Call it competence, craftsmanship, whatever you will—Westerfeld has it, enough to make Uglies good rather than great, adequate instead of amazing.