I’ve just finished Specials, which is the third book in the Uglies trilogy (though there’s also a companion novel, Extras, that I’ve started reading), so now seems as good a time as any to discuss this series. It’s a young-adult series set about three centuries into the future, in which everyone has an operation on their sixteenth birthday to make them pretty. The argument is that if everyone looks the same, then there is no discrimination, and indeed there seems to be very little in the way of crime in their society. They’re also more environmentally-friendly than modern society, yet as the series progresses Tally, the protagonist, discovers more sinister elements to the pretty operation.
It is this balance between elements that seem to improve on modern society and those that seem to be a regression that makes the culture of these books so fascinating. Tally vascillates between approving and disapproving of her own society, and as the series progresses it becomes less and less clear as to whether or not this society is an improvement on our own. For instance, at the start of Uglies, Tally is desperate to become pretty; this desperation is something I think just about any young woman (and many young men) in modern society can understand, but at the same time we can’t help deriding the culture that encourages it.
I think one of the greatest strengths of this series is that, even when Tally buys into these ideals of her society, she is still sympathetic. There were times when I really, strongly disagreed with what Tally was doing, in far greater proportion than with most works of this genre, but I kept reading, because even though I thought what she was doing was horribly, morally wrong, her reasons for doing so weren’t. In this way she is still sympathetic, because the reader can identify with her motivations and understand why she does the things she does, which is in part because of the culture in which she lives.
This brings me to what I think is the other great strength, and that is that this series strives toward what, in my opinion, is the highest calling of speculative fiction; that is that it causes the audience to question our own assumptions about society and about the world. A society that at first seems to be wholly wrong, homogenising its people, becomes one with understandable motivations, and when the audience notices the good things in that society it then raises the question of whether or not the homogeneity is worth it. Is it worth removing people’s individuality in order to create a safer world, not only for the people, but for the earth itself? Or, on the flip side, is it worth sacrificing safety and the environment to allow people greater individuality? Or is there a third middle ground? These are all questions raised by this series, and Tally herself seems to change her mind about them at various points.
On the whole, then, this is an excellent trilogy. The books are fast-paced, action-filled and generally enjoyable to read, and there is ample character development, making Tally an intriguing protagonist. At the same time, the book goes beyond simply being a fun story (not that there’s anything wrong with that) through sculpting an antagonistic society with layered morality that forces the reader to question preconceived notions.