This terminal volume in Scott Westerfeld’s foundational dystopia, the Uglies trilogy, follows a familiar tune.
The promise of earlier books, from the series opener, Uglies and its thought-provoking take on coming of age and its unfortunate implications, to the middle volume, Pretties, and its mind-bending complications, turn out to be too ambitious to sit comfortably in Specials‘ 350 pages, and too lofty to decisively resolve.
Tally, the teenage heroine who saw the cracks in the system in book one and suddenly found herself a part of it in book two, winds up yet again unwillingly modified by the government of her city, this time “enhanced” both physically and mentally into a man-hunting machine who can track dissidents like prey and do the government’s bidding with maximum efficiency.
The government in Westerfeld’s series doesn’t rule with an iron fist, exactly: it transforms its citizens into perfectly beautiful, perfectly brainwashed “Pretties” once they come of age. Constantly occupied with their cliques, parties, and thrills as a result of it, the policy of compulsory cosmetic surgery at 16 is the gift that keeps on giving––humanity is too infantilized to cause many problems or raise objections to the status quo. For the few that remain, the government has Special Circumstances, or “Specials,” on the opposite end of the surgical brainwashing spectrum, an agency with faces designed to elicit fear and its own distinct, government-implanted delusions.
Westerfeld’s victories in this volume are largely conceptual, and all in the details. He skillfully invents a subculture for these Specials and uses the tools of previous volumes––the language, conformity, a strong sense of physicality––to make its allure convincing and illuminate the psychological factors that keep people in line where the influence of systems stops. From Pretty-isms like “bubbly” and “happy-making” emerge Special-isms like “icy,” and new internal logic that capitalizes on our characters’ needs to feel superior to the “bubblehead” Pretties to match.
Tally, however, has been fed indoctrination, questioned it, and overcome it two times over now, once in Uglies and once in Pretties, and Specials has her do it yet again, from the ground up. In spite of this hurdle, or perhaps because of it, Specials is the speed round version. It’d be reductive to spend the same amount of pages in the same battle––one that frustrated many readers when they met a bubbly, brainwashed Tally in Pretties with the clock turned back on her character development. In Pretties, though, her starting point is alien enough to make the battle discernibly different. Specials doesn’t add anything new: the surgery has brainwashed Tally before and she has recovered from it before. It’s a nearly identical struggle, in a slightly different flavor.
This is a valid reason that might make the sidelining of Tally’s struggle with her new identity a wise move. But Westerfeld’s deconstruction of the Specials’ superiority complex is the subject of the book’s most memorable scenes––including one very devastating kiss––and it injects crucial friction into a romantic subplot that otherwise fades into a dull thrum. But the book doesn’t decide what to do with it either way, leaving a well-developed subplot that, when the action deems it necessary, just disappears.
The “Specials” issue expires too early in part because, this being Tally’s final volume, we have bigger fish to fry. As the romance has the happily ever after, the dystopian has the collapse of the corrupt regime.
Westerfeld’s take on this front, even though it can sometimes feel like an obligatory conclusion, has a real streak of realism to it. Rather than making Tally the absolute mastermind, he taps her to play a small role in an ongoing shift that began before she decided that her political situation was bogus: Specials sees her dealing with auxiliary consequences and hurrying the gradual change along until her own circumstances see a breaking point.
This decision allows the scope of the dystopian world order to come across, but doesn’t put armies at a 17-year-old’s command to do it. In keeping with this, Westerfeld’s choice of self-governing cities as opposed to a massive totalitarian state or empire makes some interesting strides towards progress in this fictional world possible within this final volume, but overall the pace of revolution is glacial. It is effected by clandestine systems of couriers, and in a refreshing turn, Tally is important, but not the center of the world.
With all this in place, the threat of war that emerges in the final third of the book feels trite and excessive, less like a decision that truly befits Westerfeld’s fictional world and more like bending to the explosive expectations of a YA sci-fi finale. But the Uglies series, action-heavy as it is, has always been internally-driven at its core. When it isn’t, it’s fueled by relationships, rather than weaponry. The doomed friendship between Tally and Shay, an electrifying supporting character, centered the tension between the devotees and the free-thinkers in the previous two books, and Specials only begs for this third-act war plot because Shay is so noticeably absent.
The series succeeded in the past because of its interior, reflective nature, even in the face of all the sci-fi bells and whistles. That is where its impact is strongest. It’s not a political thriller––though Specials tries to incorporate that quality with its villain, Dr. Cable. It’s not a revolution story, either, and even though war appears, it’s not a war story. This isn’t something to fix with hard sci-fi optics. It’s something that, like it ultimately concludes about people, is better left unchanged.