January 14th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

Read It: Scott Westerfield, Uglies

I just got my butt metaphorically kicked by a book that was much, much better than it had any right to be: Scott Westerfield, Uglies. This was not a book I was predisposed to like, let alone seek out. It's a teen-oriented juvenile science fiction novel, and that's a very uneven category. Scott Westerfield is getting a reputation as something of a hack, someone who seems to crap out a book a week without caring whether they're any good or not. Most of his other novels are about vampires, which to me is a bad sign. (Talk about your over-worked clichés; I'm hard pressed to believe that the 1990s fad for vampire romance novels left anything to say or do that's worth the pulp to print it on.) What's more, from all appearances it's about a subject that just begs to be self-indulgent, petty, and preachy: teenagers' obsession with beauty. So with all of those strikes against it, what tipped me to pick it up? The opening sentence, which is a spot-on parody of the much-mocked opening sentence of one of my favorite science fiction novels, the ur-cyberpunk classic Neuromancer by William Gibson. So little cyberpunk still gets written that I decided to gamble a couple of bucks that a cyberpunk-informed teen SF novel might be worth reading.

Well, not only did it turn out to be worth reading, but it may actually be one of the best hard-SF novels I've read in the last several years. When I got to the last sentence, it hit me like a kick in the gonads. This time, I'm not exaggerating, either; it actually doubled me over in pain, knocked the wind out of me, and brought tears to my eyes. And it did all of this despite being a sentence I've heard in other contexts several times in my life. In fact, it did all of this despite having been spoiled for me by a review I read a few months ago! The reviewer tipped off that final sentence, and deprived of context, it meant nothing to me, so I managed to forget it. So added to my pain as I was doubled over at the kitchen table was the realization that it was heavily foreshadowed, and tipped off to me in advance, and I still wasn't prepared for the pain it caused me. And yes, that's a good thing.

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Remember when I was reviewing another book this almost this good, Max Barry's Jennifer Government? What totally kicked my backside about both of these novels, and what sets them apart from the whole rest of the broad genre of dystopian science fiction, is that they make it entirely plausible that somebody, that even most people, would find it a utopia. In the case of both of those books, there are people all around you who, if you told them the premise of that future society, would cheerfully volunteer to live in it; some of them are arguably already working and fighting to bring it about. One of the fundamental philosophical concepts that lead to the foundation of the modern United States of America is the principle that, "All government is by the consent of the governed." You can create an anti-utopia that rules by force and fear like EngSoc in 1984 or Gilead in The Handmaid's Tale, but you can't make it seem plausible that it would last for more than a generation or two unless a substantial majority of the people who live in that society actually prefer things that way. (And that's why both novels make it clear, in their afterwords, that neither civilization lasted long.) To make a truly plausible, and thus truly frightening, dystopia, there can be no doubt that it is someone's not just power trip but actual ideal world.

I've got the sequel to Uglies, Pretties, on order. The third volume in the series (trilogy?), Specials, isn't scheduled to come out until May. So I don't know everything, yet, about how the world ended up the way it did, or exactly how most Middles feel about it. But I already know enough to have a pretty good idea who destroyed our civilization, and most importantly, how they can justify to themselves and even to the people around them, what they did (if anybody knew who'd done it), why they did it, and why pretty much everybody thinks that society is better off this way. But when you see what price people pay to live in that peaceful, environmentally friendly, economically healthy, safe, ultra-tech, egalitarian, tolerant, middle class utopia, you'll shudder all the way to the depths of your soul.