Here’s an interview I did about Uglies with Simon & Schuster’s book newsletter for teens.
Q: How did you get the idea for a futuristic society where everyone is made pretty?
A: We are definitely heading toward a world in which lots of people will get to decide how they look. That will change what we think of as beautiful, and what beauty means to us. So some people stay the way they look, because that’s cool or radical. Some won’t change because they’re rich and powerful—like when famous directors go to some fancy Hollywood restaurant in an old T-shirt and baseball cap; it shows they can get away with it. Other people will try to outdo each other, and manipulate themselves in ways that we don’t consider remotely pretty right now.
So thinking these thoughts, I wanted to write a future in which these technologies were fairly common. And in my future, the local government forces you to have an acceptable face—that is, a certain kind of pretty face. Sort of like now, when adults try to control how teenagers dress, cut their hair, use make-up, and get tattoos or piercings. This is the stuff of rebellion.
(Also, I was inspired by Ted Chiang’s excellent story, “Liking What You See: A Documentary,” about a technology that allows people to switch off their ability to see human beauty, so they can concentrate on the more important aspects of who people are. Fascinating stuff.)
Q: Do you agree with Tally when she claims people have a genetic disposition to think symmetry is pretty?
A: I think genes do affect the way we perceive beauty, but not completely. Nature and culture both play a role, just like in everything else we do. According to a lot of research, people have evolved to be attracted to symmetry—the left half of your face looking like the right half. Symmetry is a quick way of telling if someone was well fed as a child, which affects your intelligence, immune system, and general health your whole life. We get a happy feeling when we see a symmetrical face, because we think that person will be a good mate, or at least won’t cough and spray us with deadly germs.
But culture is just as active in making us decide which people are sexy. A hundred years ago, Europeans thought being pale was hot, because it meant you didn’t have to work outdoors (so you were rich). These days among white people, being tanned is hot, because it means you can afford to go to the beach. But I think pale is coming back, because it means you don’t have skin cancer. People have genes, but they also have brains.
Q: Some people think we’re all heading toward a society where everyone looks the same—a natural result of diverse societies, with people meeting and mixing. How is this different than making everyone “Pretty” like they do in the book?
A: Certainly, humanity is starting to “average” our looks. As more people immigrate across the world and intermarry, we’ll see a lot more faces that are a mash-up of Asian, African and European features (and South American, Australian Aboriginal, Fiji Islander, Inuit, etc.).
But intermarrying is different than the pretties in my book. Pretties (like people who get nose jobs) are all engineered to look the same, which is boring. When people marry across racial lines, however, they create whole new ways of looking. How much cooler is that?
Q: How did the Rusties’ society end? Will you ever write about that?
A: Each book in the Uglies series will have more of that story. But the short version is that the Rusties (who are us, basically) were too dependent on oil. One day, a bacteria was created that changed the nature of oil and made it wildly unstable. As this “oil-bug” spread, everyone’s car exploded, as did the oil fields we were all fighting over. Food didn’t get delivered to cities, planes stopped flying, and transportation in general broke down. Relatively few of us survived.
Uglies takes place a long time later. It’s a society that is justifiably afraid of the whole global-meltdown thing happening again. But alas, it’s a society that has been made paranoid by its history, and hates human innovation and difference. Which often makes it a less-than-fun place to be a teenager (except for the hoverboards).
Q: Do you think that the importance of beauty varies between different parts of the world? Is it just Americans with our reality TV shows that are so focused on appearance and beauty?
A: Most cultures I know of are obsessed with beauty (though different kinds of beauty, of course). All through human history we have ornamented ourselves with clothes, jewelry, tattoos, brands, scars, suntans, make-up, etc. Modern plastic surgery is no more or less crazy than sticking a bone through your cheek.
What’s different now is an explosion of new technology, which always makes things interesting. And given that Americans are richer than the rest of the world, we have more time to worry about this stuff, and more money to mess with our faces. That puts us ahead of everybody else, and makes us guinea pigs as well . . .
Q: Did you write this book as a cautionary tale?
A: Uglies isn’t about dire warnings, it’s about thinking things through. The more we think about this stuff, the better our choices will be.
But here’s my cautionary tale: I have a gorgeous friend who has a really big nose. When she was sixteen, she desperately wanted surgery to make her look more like everybody else. Fortunately she kept her own face. Because these days everyone agrees that though she’d be cute with a cute little nose, she is totally striking and sexy now because of her fabulous schnoz.
Don’t forget, a few decades ago girls who were “too tall” were given drugs to slow their growth. Now it rocks to be tall. My main advice is: stick to make-up, clothes, hair dye, and minor piercings when you’re young. Everything else is way too permanent.