Jan. 8th, 2011

coraa: (bookworm)
Uglies / Pretties / Specials / Extras, by Scott Westerfeld

Tally can't wait until she turns sixteen: then she'll get the surgery to become Pretty, move to New Pretty Town and enjoy constant entertainment and parties, and—most importantly—be reunited with her best friend Peris, who, being a few months older than her, is already Pretty and enjoying his new life without her. But while she's waiting, alone, for her sixteenth birthday, Tally meets Shay. Shay is the same age as Tally, and is an exciting daredevil with a fascination with history of the old Rusty civilizations... and she's not as enthused as Tally about getting a shot at being Pretty. But when Shay runs away, Tally finds out that everything's more complicated than she had suspected.

The Uglies series is fairly distant-future science fiction, set in a world that sought to resolve the inequities of human life and the problems of ecological depredation (after "our" society collapsed and burned, literally) in two ways. First, most human needs (both material and emotional) are satisfied by the city; second, the city makes everyone look the same: everyone is Pretty. (You may be thinking, as I was, that that's overly simplistic, but the book does know that. It's just that Tally doesn't know that, not from the start.) But the price of being both beautiful and well-cared-for is relying wholly on the city, and its omnipresent monitoring, and its secretive leaders.

Tally doesn't care about that at the beginning: she's fifteen, almost sixteen, and she misses her friend, and she wants to join the 24-7 party going on in New Pretty Town. This probably makes her sound pretty shallow, but it's a) pretty believable to me, and b) part of her character trajectory in a way I find very satisfying. One of the things I liked about the book is the way Tally matured and grew throughout, not only in terms of learning about the society she lives in but also in that she discovered strengths and a moral core of her own. And she does it gradually, rather than by large Important Epiphanies. To put it another way: she grows up. And a big part of how and why she grows up lies in her tumultuous friendship with Shay.

While reading this, I wound up thinking a great deal of the "Female Friendship in Fantasy" panel at Sirens. Tally and Shay are best friends, and yet they wind up at odds with each other regularly (sometimes in romantic conflicts, but often not). While I might have preferred a bit less in the way of romantic conflict, I did like that that wasn't the only thing they wound up arguing over, and I liked that the relationship between Tally and Shay was the most important one in the books. That's not something you see all that often. And it did remind me of a few of my friendships over the years. (I also liked that neither Tally nor Shay was wholly right, when they argued. Often one was partly right and the other was, too, or one was perhaps more purely morally right while the other was more pragmatic, or both had totally sympathetic reasons for being at odds. And it wasn't all about "girl rivalries:" they really were friends, which made the times they were at odds all the more affecting.)

I also appreciated the way the plot snapped along, lively and compelling. I kept reading on because it was really hard to stop.

The series isn't perfect: the story stumbled a little before it caught its stride (I wasn't totally hooked until the second book, Pretties), and I wasn't always sure of motivations of certain characters, and—while I liked the romances, actually—I wasn't as enamored of the romantic rivalries (although they were thankfully not the focus of the story). But the books do a good job of keeping up tension and interest without becoming repetitive or overly grim, and I read the whole quartet in about two days. The plot just zips along. I like that.

The other thing I noticed was Westerfeld's hand with invented slang. I know that any discussion of invented slang tends to be very personal and hard to quantify beyond "it worked for me" or "it didn't work for me"—and I know that there are certainly people for whom the slang in the Uglies series didn't work—but it did work for me. (With the occasional exception, but overall, it worked.) I found the slang believable as slang, and I didn't have any trouble following it.

It's hard to speak of anything but the first half of the first book in anything but the vaguest terms without spoiling, partly because the end of each book contains a major hairpin turn. (I am, in retrospect, glad I am reading them now that the whole series is complete.) So I'll continue under the cut, with the understanding that there are potentially book-breaking spoilers for all four books there.

Spoilers have spinning flash tattoos )

Recommended, especially if you like science fiction that explores social issues and social programming.

A caveat: as is probably obvious even from the titles, this is a series that deals with what it means to be pretty (or Pretty), what it means to not be pretty, what it means to be unusual, and so on. Especially early in the series, Tally is bluntly critical of her own "ugly" (normal) appearance, and longs to undergo her society's coming-of-age surgery and become beautiful. In addition, the series deals with brain modification and brain damage in an unflinching way. This is, absolutely, not something the series accepts uncritically (quite the opposite, in fact), but if you're likely to find a lot of discussion of physical appearance and/or brain modification triggering, well, then you probably ought to know.

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