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Uglies, Pretties, Specials, Extras / Scott Westerfield
dr_phil_physics LJ wrote:
I've been running into John Scalzi at ConFusion for years and he was a delightful Toastmaster, amusing everyone with tall tales as way of introductions at the opening ceremonies. Scott Westerfeld and Justine Larbalestier are both currently writing YA SF and Fantasy, respectively, and are married to each other, despite coming from opposite ends of the planet. John is billing Scott as "the most influential science fiction writer of the first decade of the twenty-first century" -- and the sales of his four-book trilogy which begins with Uglies have topped the two million mark. Justine started off studying SF history and fandom, and describes herself as having "gone native."

As a regular reader of Locus from before Clarion, I've seen the four-book Uglies trilogy come out, given rave reviews and burn up the charts. And yet it's kind of hidden, being sold as YA. The protags are mainly 15 and 16-year-olds, sure, but there's nothing that requires these novels to be only 80% sold to teenage girls... it'd be like saying Ender's Game is only for kids and boys at that. Anyway, I've been meaning to read these for a while -- saw the foursome at Schuler Books new downtown Grand Rapids store when we were shopping for Christmas presents and pointed them out to Debbie -- and having finally met Scott Westerfield at ConFusion, I figured now was the time.

At ConFusion I saw a young college woman carrying a boxed set of trade paperbacks of the first three, and I ordered the boxed set plus Extras in hardcover from Amazon for less that $30. They came on Friday and I spent the weekend reading all four. Page turners for sure. I cannot imagine having to wait for each of the books to come out, because of cliffhangers between 1 & 2, and 2 & 3. Because I had them all, I just dove into the next as soon as I finished one. (grin)

In the first three we are following Tally Youngblood, who starts out as a 15 year old ugly in a world where all 16 year olds are required to have surgery to make them pretties. The idea is that if everyone is tall and thin and beautiful, then there's no unfair advantages in society. Very quickly, we begin to learn that things are much more complicated than this and everyone is being lied to by the powers in charge. The fourth book, Extras, is set in what appears to be Japan instead of what appears to be America, and in a different city where everyone gets something like a Technorati rating -- and your rank number determines your worth and privilege and resources. Tally shows up later, but we're not in her head in the fourth book.

All told this is a very clever series. Westerfield has an ear for using jargon and teen-speak that is both foreign, like listening to Valley Girls, and yet completely comprehensible and easy to follow. I'm sure fans of the books use these clever speaking ways amongst themselves. Age groupings and cliques abound, each with clever names. We would be the Rusties -- who mostly died 300 years before these books. The Rusties burned fossil fuels, clearcut forests, stripmined the Earth and built great steel-based cities everywhere. The population has been seriously winnowed down and the new governments "say" that they are all for sustainable life. And yet, life is... complicated and seemingly as wasteful as ever.

The science and technology is easily followed and quite believable, up until the middle of the third book, Specials. There I had a quibble with the speed of some nanobots. But it advances the story quite well and keeps the breakneck pace of the whole series going, so it's just a quibble and not a deal breaker.

Westerfield, who I know taught at Clarion South in 2005, is quite adroit at being mean to his characters and putting them in great physical, emotional and mental peril. Making deals with the devil, lying and telling selective truths are all part of the story. Mind control never looked so subtle or dangerous.

At ConFusion there was quite a lot of discussion about the explosive growth of F/SF in YA. And also the fact that these bestsellers are introducing a whole new generation of SF readers to SF -- much like the Heinlein juveniles did to me and thousands of others in the 50s and 60s. So read these books because they are (a) fun, (b) cheap, and (c) important. No, really!

Highly Recommended

Dr. Phil

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Last update: 04 March 2008 Tuesday