I read lots of Young Adult literature #YALit and am always looking for books that I can incorporate into my lectures or assignments. I’ve previously read a few books by Scott Westerfeld and ordered The Uglies, The Pretties, and The Extras. There are more in this series, but these are the three that I own. This series of books have been recommended to me for a few years, so I finally ordered them.
The books are set in a dystopic future where teenagers 16 and up are surgically enhanced to be pretty. When children are born they are littlies and with the onset of puberty around age 12 the tweens are sent to live in dorms and are henceforth referred to as “uglies.” And, they are waiting until they have their corrective surgery to make them pretty, so that they can go live in Pretty Town and have all of their needs met so that they can party all night long. Parents are “middle pretties” and the aged are “late pretties.” Their faces are crafted to perfection so that they can all conform and be happy. Sounds like an idea future?
Right about now, I’m sure that some of you are thinking, “Why are you reading this garbage?’ Well, for a few reasons. The most important is that there are messages here between the lines and frankly some of the uglies know that there is more out there beyond the confines of the suffocating lack of choices. Westerfeld refers to the ways in which previous generations destroyed the land and one another and how this new culture is better. He’s making commentary here. And, we see that some of the uglies want to go to the edge of civilization or even past and find more to life. These few uglies are looking for the “smokies” people who are making it on their own and have shirked the surgery and the exhausting perfection.
In the first volume, the main two female protagonists are Shay and Tally. These two enjoy adventure and want more. Shay leaves to the Smokes, and Tally later follows. But, things do not go as planned. Spoiler Alert.
In the next volume, Tally and Shay have been made pretty. Their lives are great–lost of fun and parties. The pretties have purge packets they can take to help them not get fat! They obviously have everything. Ha!
But then something happens. Tally tries to escape Pretty Town, but has a misstep with her escape and stumbles upon a tribe of primitives. I started this section with some reservation wondering if Westerfeld would play with the tired tropes and well the book has taken a disappointing turn. Of course, the “prims” refer to Tally as a god. How could they not, she’s beautiful, she’s perfect and she fell from the sky.
I’m not done with the book, but from what I’ve now read the next few chapters might be painful. I conferred with a friend and she noted that she stopped reading it right around the next chapter. Apparently it gets worse with the native appropriation and depiction of prims. Westerfield is not artfully playing with history here. Instead, he’s using some of the tired tropes and this is not creative–no, in my opinion it’s highly problematic. But, as I noted in a Twitter tweet, this book is giving me another example to refer to in a Politics and Popular Culture seminar. Ah, another teachable moment.
Addendum: Well, I finished the book. And, indeed things did get more interesting and problematic. Spoiler alert. The prims live on a reservation and are part of an anthropological study that examines violence. Scott Westerfeld–I would feel more comfortable if each volume included a reader’s guide or reader’s questions to complicate the storyline. Readers could make connections between the treatment of Indigenous peoples in the past and present and think about the ways in which they are treated in this dystopic future.