Tally Youngblood will soon turn sixteen, the age she's been waiting for her entire life.
At sixteen, Tally gets to have the operation that will make her pretty.
Scott Westerfeld's novel, Uglies, is a dystopic vision of the future along the lines of Shirley Jackson and Pearl S. Buck. In Tally's world, everyone gets the operation that makes them pretty when they're sixteen, when they leave the dorms at Uglyville and move to New Pretty Town with the other new pretties. They get wider eyes, healthier skin, fuller lips. It's all according to the formula of asthetic attraction written in our genes by biology, all the things we instinctively look for in another.
What could possibly be wrong with that?
But not everybody wants to have the operation. Sometimes, they run away, out into the ruins of the Rusties--the civilization that existed before, the one that chopped trees and burned oil and laid down steel and concrete, and tinkered with the natural order of things until finally it outsmarted itself and became the civilization that exists now: Uglies and Pretties.
Tally's new friend Shay is an ugly who doesn't want to have the operation. She sneaks Tally out at night and shows her the ruins of an old amusement park, and tells her of a friend she has met out there that takes runaway uglies to a hidden place, a place away from being pretty--a place known only as "The Smoke." Back in Uglyville dorms, Tally can't even get Shay to experiment with the computer screens that give potential glimpses into what her new pretty form would look like:
"Shay! Come on. it's just for fun."
"Making ourselves feel ugly is not fun."
"We are ugly!"
"This whole game is just designed to make us hate ourselves."
Tally groaned and flopped back onto her bed, glaring up at the ceiling. Shay could be so weird sometimes. She always had a chip on her shoulder about the operation, like someone was making her turn sixteen. "Right, and things were so great back when everyone was ugly. or did you miss that day in school?"
"Yeah, yeah, I know," Shay recited. "Everyone judged everyone else based on their appearance. People who were taller got better jobs, and people even voted for some politicians just because they weren't quite as ugly as everybody else. Blah, blah, blah."
"Yeah, and people killed one another over stuff like having different skin color." Tally shook her head. No matter how many times they repeated it at school, she'd never quite believed that one. "So what if people look more alike now? It's the only way to make people equal."
On the night Shay runs away, she visits Tally one more time to convince her to come with her. Tally refuses, but Shay leaves a cryptic note in case she ever changes her mind.
Tally won't change her mind. Tally turns sixteen in days. She wants to be pretty.
But when she's picked up and taken to her operation, there's a sudden problem. And Tally learns the world is more than Uglies and Pretties. There is a third set, a population of beauty that is advanced and cruel: Specials. The ones who police the entire thing through a barely-believed organization known as Special Circumstances. They've been monitoring the runaways, and have decided they want them back. They want "The Smoke" to disappear.
And until Tally makes the journey to find Shay, and there activate a special tracking device to alert Special Circumstances, she will never be made pretty. Ever.
Given no choice, Tally agrees. After an arduous and adventurous journey, Tally attracts the attention of the Smokies--including Shay and the legendary leader, David.
The Smoke turns out to be a wilderness camp of sorts. People live off the land, salvaging the steel and iron leftover by the Rusties. They make their own clothes, cook their own food which they hunt (which appalls Tally) and have their own communal economy.
And they have books. Books from hundreds of years ago, magazines too, which show what the world was like during Rusty civilization. In an environment where everything is done by computers and all necessities break down into recyclable components as soon as they're done being used, something as tree-wasting as a book is shocking to Tally.
But there's something else about the Smokeys that prevents Tally from immediately activating her tracking device. Specifically, there's something about David, their charismatic leader. As he and Tally grow closer throughout the weeks Tally spends in their camp, David works up the courage to take her up the mountain, to meet his parents, Maddy and Az--two doctors who used to do the operation, who were once pretties themselves... and who discovered something that forced them into exile:
"I'm sorry, Tally," Maddy said. "But this secret is very important. And very dangerous."
Tally nodded her head, looking down at the floor. "Everything out here is dangerous."
They were all silent for a moment. All Tally heard was the tinkle of Az stirring his tea.
"See?" David said finally. "She understands. You can trust her. She deserves to know the truth."
"Everyone does," Maddy said quietly. "Eventually."
"Well," Az said, then paused to sip his tea. "I suppose we'll have to tell you, Tally."
"Tell me what?"
David took a deep breath. "The truth about being pretty."
When Tally learns the secret behind being pretty, she makes up her mind where her allegiances lie. But even the act of defiance against her orders from Special Circumstances won't sever her ties to the Specials. And suddenly everything begins to fall apart, for the Smokeys, for David's family, and for Tally's entire world as all her lies finally tumble upon her with tragic consequence from which admirably heroic actions are born. Tally's final sacrifice is not merely the blood-chilling climax of the book, it's the clothes-rending, primal-screaming discovery that the reader is being left hanging off the springboard for the sequel, Pretties, which won't be published until November 2005.
Part The Lottery, part The Matrix, and part The Wave, Uglies is the first of a trilogy that shouts from the rooftops of literature why Westerfeld is a master of his genre. If Uglies isn't considered for a Hugo for 2006, then either Westerfeld got robbed or this will just have been an uncommonly good year for science fiction output. The pinnacle of speculative fiction for teen readers that does more than deliver pulse-pounding adventure but also forces introspection into the way we perceive ourselves and others.
Very highly recommended.