Sunday, October 27, 2013

Uglies and the problem with dystopias

Out of all the dystopias that got attention in the wake of "The Hunger Games", "Uglies" is the odd one out, and not just because it was published before the trend-setter. A book that was written in the third person rather than the first, one with heavily environmental subtext, and one that, at least at first, was about friendship rather than romance... it's rather different from your "Matched" and your "Eve", and yet for some reason it doesn't quite set itself apart enough.


The premise is deceptively straightforward - in a future Earth, countries are gone and people live in independent cities, environmentally-conscious and very careful about their impact on nature, after a catastrophe that pretty much destroyed our current civilization. The peace is maintained by way of a surgical intervention that makes everyone look the same (Pretty) and our heroine, Tally Youngblood, can't wait for her turn. But then she makes friends with a girl named Shay, an independent thinker who has her own opinions about the surgery and the life of a Pretty.

Now that in itself is a fascinating premise, one that lends itself quite easily to feminist deconstruction (the story was on the Bitch magazine 100 YA books for the feminist reader,) but as far as execution goes, it kind of gets hung up on the same things as most modern dystopias do. 

Namely: Who the hell drives the garbage trucks in this universe?

No, really. "Uglies" presents us with a hi-tech dystopia, full of environmentally friendly gadgets and widely-available aesthetic surgery. Which looks really neat on the surface, but doesn't hold up closer inspection. How is any of it economically plausible? How can self-sufficient cities have enough resources to maintain their shiny, happy appearance, if they're supposedly steering away from exploiting the Earth or lower classes? 

More to the point, how is possible that every single person in this world can afford the surgery? Surely it is not free, nor can it be, because all the materials, equipment, education, and labor that goes into performing plastic surgery does not come out of thin air. Or is this the kind of society where, once you've gone under the knife, you spend the rest of your life indebted to the state and paying back for your surgery? That would have been pretty neat to mention.

The reason why I'm getting hung up over this is that traditionally, in dystopias, the reader should view the futuristic society as something undesirable. In here, the assumption is that eradicating physical difference will eradicate inequality and war, that there are no losers... but there must be, otherwise we wouldn't be following our heroine trying to take the society down. 

In cases such as this, pointing out all the other inequalities in this world (and not just the ones between Uglies and Pretties) would have been perfect. Class, surely, plays a part. Someone has to man the garbage trucks and do all the blue-collar jobs that are necessary to maintain all of this (even if that someone is a drone, they still need human supervision.) Nationality is another possibility - do these city-states not trade? Do people not go on holiday? Or an academic exchange? 

How about sexism? Still there? 

Or sexual orientation?

Or transphobia even! If plastic surgery is so widespread, surely transitioning in all of its many forms is possible. Is it done? And what are the reprecusssions?

So many possibilities, and yet all we get is a mention of people on whom "the operation does not work". And then some reveal about a society-wide problem. 

Peeps... I get it. I get it. It's supposed to be bad because it affects all of us. And I guess it makes sense that a uniform society has a uniform problem. But here's the  thing - even if everyone looked the same, there would still be differences in character. People would still find some way to split into camps, whether those camps are real or completely arbitrary ("Serious" and "Bubbly", for example.) The problem with dystopias is that they supposedly advertise diversity by presenting us with the horrors of uniformity, but they never really show us the beauty of diversity. They just... plop the statement that uniformity is bad in front of us and let us make our assumptions.

I'm not saying that "Uglies" is completely without merit. In fact, if Scott Westerfeld didn't read "Limits to Growth" as part of his research, I would be very surprised, because he does a good job of presenting us with a plausible catastrophe that destroyed our current society. 

At the same time, the environmentalist angle of the book is presented in a pretty hammy and awkward way. Tally is used to living in a sustainable community, but since we're not told how that community is maintained, we can't understand why the Smokies' way of life (campsy-outdoorsy with lots of chopping of useless trees) is better. Perhaps if we knew the cost of living in a high-tech bio community, we would understand the merit of living outdoors and in hiding.

In technical and storytelling terms, the book blows most of the other modern dystopias out of the water. Sadly, underneath the surface, it's got the same failings. I recommend it, just... proceed with caution.

Image via Booklikes. 

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