The Uglies Series, Scott Westerfeld

Simon Pulse, 2005-2007, ???? pages, C$??.?? tpb, ISBN Various

Uglies, Simon Pulse, 2005, 425 pages, C$10.50 pb, ISBN 978-0-689-86538-1
Pretties, Simon Pulse, 2005, 370 pages, C$10.50 pb, ISBN 978-0-689-86539-8
Specials, Simon Pulse, 2006, 372 pages, C$11.50 pb, ISBN 978-1-4169-4795-0
Extras, Simon Pulse, 2007, 417 pages, C$19.99 hc, ISBN 978-1-4169-5117-9

If we’re to believe those with access to Bookscan sales numbers, Scott Westerfeld has become one of the best-selling SF author of the past decade without much attention from the genre SF community. Cannily, he’s been able to pass unnoticed by tapping the young adult market: Thanks to publishing silos, most YA publishing used to pass unnoticed from the adult fiction pundits. Things have improved somewhat over the past few years as YA’s bigger sales have shamed adult SF numbers, and one of the landmark works in the field has been Westerfeld’s Uglies trilogy, which was ideally poised to benefit from the success of Westerfeld’s previous Peeps series.

In the spirit of reportage, your fearless reviewer dared plunge into the unfamiliar murk of the YA section to bring back a boxed set of the Uglies trilogy (Uglies, Pretties and Specials) along with a standalone fourth book (Extras) set in the same universe. How does it stack up next to the adult fiction? Should we all make a stop at the YA shelves from now on? Are the kids reading this going to grow up to be good SF fans? Keep reading.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of YA fiction is that it usually features younger protagonists, and so the initial Uglies trilogy stars Tally Youngblood, a teenage girl living in a world where there’s been quite a few changes to human society: Isolated cities exist in a post-apocalyptic landscape, and the stages of life have been formalized into distinct stages: “Littlies” grow up to be “Uglies” until their sixteenth birthday, at which point they are medically transformed into “Pretties” who enjoy a vacuous life until they grow older and become “Crumblies”. The city in which Tally lives is segregated by age, which leads to the usual hijinks in which the young ones try to see how the glamorous older set lives.

But Tally’s not the kind of person to go with how things usually go, and so she quickly discovers life outside the city, along with hints of a past catastrophe, an underground for rebels and the disturbing secret of the medical procedures that transform Uglies into Pretties. In latter volumes, she goes through the “Pretties” transformation herself, then reluctantly gets recruited to become a “Special” operative to act on behalf of the city government. Before she’s through she’ll have time to love a few boys, start a war and completely re-shape the society she lives in. What fun!

(The fourth volume, Extras, takes place years later with a fresh new social system and involves a largely different set of characters, though its perspective on Tally is intriguingly detached.)

From an adult SF reader’s perspective, the series holds up a certain interest: The extrapolation of various trends in entertaining, and Tally makes for a good narrator. Where it differs from adult SF is that the explanations are more laborious and take far more time to be revealed: savvy SF readers will guess most of the twists ahead of time, and roll their eyes at the falsely-frantic pace that doesn’t lead anywhere. On the other hand, readers unfamiliar with SF in general may not find a better series to learn the particularities of the genre.

The first volume is most interesting, as the stakes are clear and there’s an entirely new world to understand. The second volume is a notable step back, as the protagonist’s goals are less clearly defined. The third volume is bigger and more interesting, while the unplanned fourth book is an acceptable epilogue with enough space for some new ideas.

If that’s the kind of SF that the kids are reading today, we’re in good hands: it’s not dumb, it’s not dull and it’s not fantasy dressed up in silver costumes. It’s also quite different from the Heinlein juveniles, and that ought to be a lesson for whoever wants to write SF for teens: they don’t want regurgitated ideas from the fifties, they want stories that speak to the hyper-connected present. One of the best legacies of Westerfeld’s success so far has been to open up the YA market to the adult audience, ensuring that we’ll be able to recognize the best SF authors regardless of who they’re writing for. And who knows; maybe the infusion of contemporary SF tropes will even invigorate the sometimes-moribund adult genre…

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