Scott Westerfeld interview:
In the month that Britain’s first full-face transplant has been announced, Westerfeld’s series, Uglies, has struck a huge chord – not least with 20th Century Fox, who have bought the film rights. The American author has written what amounts to a Brave New World for our time in his remarkable dystopian thrillers set three hundred years in the future, when teenagers believe themselves to be ugly until, at sixteen, they have mandatory plastic surgery to turn them into Pretties. As well as getting the latest surgically enhanced eyes, noses, bodies and bones, however, they secretly get brain surgery which turns them into passive party creatures, controlled and coerced by a super-enhanced elite of secret police. Westerfeld, a prize-winning author of SF, is the Next Big Thing for teenagers, who can’t wait for the third instalment, Specials, published this month.
The first novel, Uglies, came out early this year and quickly became the hottest of hot reads, selling by word-of-mouth rather than any marketing campaign. So many teenagers’ anxieties - how they look, how little freedom they really have and how demonised they feel by society - seems to be dramatised in these books: they have a samizdat appeal that overlies a piercing intelligence satirising the way our culture is developing.
“Tally, the heroine, lives in a world that is truly post-feminist, and in which other issues such as race and class have been got rid of. What interested me was, initially, writing about the way we see pretty people as better. We all agree it’s bad to judge people on skin colour, but we’re unapologetic about admiring beauty, with the result that pretty people get better jobs, grades and are even arrested less,” says the author, who is wryly amused by having become one of the people the New York Times likes to ask for quotes every time questions on plastic surgery get raised.
“I wouldn’t hesitate if I had a kid with a port-wine stain; I didn’t write this as a screed against plastic surgery. We’ve all been altering our appearances ever since clothing was invented. But at some point, having the right face will be like having the right handbag. It’s treating as trivial and fashionable something you can die having done.”
Plastic surgery is not just a Western obsession, according to his research. It’s huge in China and Thailand, and Uglies opens with a New York Times quote from Yang Yuan, a Chinese beauty contestant whose looks were “enhanced” by surgery, asking, “Is it not good to make society full of beautiful people?”
“The Chinese even have a TV beauty contest for the ‘Most Improved’,” he says. He sees this literal loss of face as a loss of culture, akin to the books destroyed in Ray Bradbury’s ‘Farenheit 451’, and tells a story about a friend with a big nose who begged for plastic surgery as a teenager but was talked out of it. “Everyone who sees her now says that with a small nose she’d be cute, but with her big one she’s gorgeous. I’ve had several letters from girls who says they’ve decided against surgery since reading Uglies. If I can save just one nose - !” he laughs, drily.
Westerfeld finds friends’ tales of LA surgery hilarious, but the sinister aspect chimed with his long-term novelist’s interest in body dysmorphia and its intellectual twin, thought control. (One of the influences on the Uglies is John Christopher’s marvellous Tripods Trilogy, in which aliens have subjugated human beings by making them wear caps which deceive us into seeing them as gods rather than monsters.) A philosophy major at Vassar, he loves exploring ideas about perception and freedom: he wrote his first novel, Polymorph, about a shape-shifter who can be male/female, black/white in 1996, when working as a non-fiction editor for the publishers McGraw Hill. His novels stood out for being both remarkably well-written and astringently original, but it was when he began writing for young adults, in 2001, that he really hit his stride, with a new series, Midnighters, having been bought for TV by the makers of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
The son of a computer programmer for Univac, Westerfeld grew up familiar with the cutting edge of 1960s technology. People believed SF was all going to be about rockets and giant computers such as the one his father worked on for NASA in Texas and Lockheed in California. In the world of Uglies, however, our oil-driven world has imploded and the large, energy-guzzling technologies of today been replaced by minute, stylish devices. Such technology is already with us, with teenagers in California being monitored by their cellphones or even dental implants. It is his prescient perception of how such inventions will lead to absolute loss of privacy which has elicited as much fan-mail as the issue of how looks dominate our lives.
“Skateboards were made illegal in Texas because they encouraged teenagers to congregate,” he points out (he took pleasure in reintroducing skateboards in Uglies as hoverboards, which can fly through the air). “Adults react to teenagers as they do to dogs – you know, two are cute, five are scary and twenty a riot. Everything they do is criminalised. They’re no longer children, and they haven’t become part of society like adults. Yet it’s the age when people are most creative, instead of just sucking in facts. It’s such an intense time of life, which makes it fraught for everyone in every way. But that’s why I love writing about it.”
Tally, who is forced to postpone her “surge” into Prettydom to spy on the rebels living in the Wild, inconveniently falls in love with one of them and is forced to rethink her ideas of beauty. A pleasingly selfish protagonist whose considerable flaws help her fight back against mind-bending, her story is chock-full of action and adventure, but also of a more subtle moral growth that turns her into a true heroine. As the younger brother of two sisters, and husband of a distinguished Australian fantasy writer, Justine Larbalestier, Westerfeld is so tuned-in to the way women think and feel that the series crosses gender, too. His website shows school art projects inspired by Uglies include board games, hoverboards and even cakes.
That it is children’s authors rather than adult ones who currently address the big questions about the way we live now is beyond question, but few have captured the zeitgeist quite like Scott Westerfeld.
"There's an old saying that the golden age of science fiction is 14, the stage of life when we're most likely to question the rules and imagine a different world than this one. So it's been great to see teenagers' intense engagement with the issues of surgery, technology, and power raised in Uglies. Although I guess teenagers have more at stake in the future than adults: they're the ones who have to live in it, after all."
The Times, November 2006
Uglies, Pretties and Specials by Scott Westerfeld are published by Simon & Schuster, £6.99