There's Nothing New Pretty Under the Sun

What does a man from Chicago in the early 20s, an old episode of The Twilight Zone, and best-selling YA author Scott Westerfeld all have in common?

They all tell stories about a world where, when you reach a certain age, you are expected--even covertly forced--to get extensive plastic surgery to make you beautiful.

Perhaps best known is Scott Westerfeld's series starting with the book Uglies. In it, Tally is about to get the surgery to make her pretty when she discovers that the surgery does more than change your outside.

But nerds dystopian scholars like me :) will know that the idea of being turned pretty is a story that was first told on The Twilight Zone. The episode is called "Number 12 Looks Just Like You," and in it, a young girl protests getting the surgery, saying "Is [getting a surgery to be beautiful and perfect] good? Being like everybody? I mean, isn't that the same as being nobody?"

(Also: HILARIOUS--Rod Sterling says in the beginning that we're supposed to imagine this in the future, "Say, in the year 2000." HAHAHA!)

Here's a short version of it (less than five minutes long), but there are longer whole versions available online, too.



And while The Twilight Zone is clearly old--this episode aired in 1964--the source of it is a short story by Charles Beaumont in 1952 called "Beautiful People."

It's clear where Scott Westerfeld got his inspiration from. Although by no means did he copy The Twilight Zone, it certainly sparked the idea for Uglies--a fact attested to in the book Mind-Rain. As reviewer RJ Carter says, "There are two special shorts in this collection that are actually pre-Uglies publications, and Westerfeld explains how both impacted his writing of the series. The first is Charles Beaumont's "The Beautiful People," a short story about a society where, at a certain age, everyone gets the operation that makes them beautiful. Society is thrown for a loop, however, when a young girl discovers ancient texts -- actually printed on paper, if you can believe that! -- and decides she wants to keep her natural appearance. Sound familiar? Maybe you saw it on television: Beaumont's 1952 story was turned into an episode of The Twilight Zone, a story titled "Number 12 Looks Just Like You" which aired in 1964."

I love that Westerfeld embraces the sources of his inspiration, and that we, as readers, can see how these differences play out. To me, it's interesting to compare how in 1964, the story ended with the girl falling to the surgery and coming out, as Rod Sterling says it, "A girl in love...with herself." But in Westerfeld's story--which progresses through four volumes--the heroine becomes a true heroine fighting back against the establishment and the idea of being pretty.

While the differences in the outcomes of the girls isn't the only thing that distinguishes these three works from each other, it is the one I find most intriguing. Is the difference one based on time? Were we expecting the worst in 1964, but expecting to fight in 2005? Or is it more a matter of telling different stories?

Recently, I was at a talk and book-signing of Robert Goolrick, author of The Reliable Wife. (Photo from Fireside Books, my local indie.) He mentioned that authors really only have two or three or maybe six things to say--but no more. Every writer has a basic thing to say--Does true love exist? Does good triumph over evil? Is God real?--and every book is the writer's attempt to answer that question.

So, what was the difference between Charles Beaumont, The Twilight Zone, and Scott Westerfeld? What different thing were they saying--and what similar things were they saying? What do you think? Why would these authors take the same concept--a "pretty world"--and have such drastically different endings? And which ending do you prefer?

19 comments:

Theresa Milstein said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Theresa Milstein said...

That Twilight Zone is classic! I have Uglies, but haven't read it yet. And I hadn't heard of the other book before. Since I haven't read the books, I can't really comment on them.

The more our society becomes obsessed with alteration, the more these types of books will be published. Look at the woman from The Hills. She looked normal, but now she looks like she's been dipped in plastic.

mguibord said...

great topic!
I think there many dystopian twists that could be made on that "pretty world" theme.
As an example do you remember another TZ episode ( I don't know the title) in which a bandaged young woman is recovery from her surgery that is intended to repair her "horrible deformity"- *Spoiler ahead*

The surgery was a failure
The reveal shows a gorgeous young woman-but we learn that everyone else in the society has monstrous pig faces- that's the standard of beauty there ..
That episode has always stuck with me :-)

Matthew Rush said...

Wow, this is so cool. It is really fun to know the histories behind things like this, especially when a short story from years ago can spark what is clearly such an awesome series of books.

It kind of sounds like how the film The Last Mimzy was inspired by an old sci-fi short story: Mimsy were the Borogroves, first published in 1943, which was in turn inspired by the Lewis Carrol poem Jabberwocky. Neat!

Today's guest blogger is THE Elana Johnson!

Solvang Sherrie said...

I really like the new cover for Uglies. I never picked up the book because the cover didn't appeal to me. I guess I'm shallow that way! But now that I know more about the book I might give it a try.

Christine Fonseca said...

Very cool post - and yeah, it isn't about completely original ideas...but new takes on them...

Angie said...

Great post. The Twilight Zone is my all-time-favorite show. (And the Uglies got me interested in writing YA.) Beaumont was credited with writing 22 episodes of TZ, including this one, but some turned out to be either ghostwritten or co-written.

Renae said...

Great post! I have to pick up the Uglies...its one of those books I've looked at a dozen times and for some reason put down. Now I'm convinced I need ot read it!

Lindsay (a.k.a Isabella) said...

Great post.

I have Uglies but am waiting to read it until my holiday. Looking forward to it though. :)

MBW aka Olleymae said...

UGLIES is on my TBR list. I've heard lots of intriguing stuff about it.

I feel like stories like that are all commentary/backlash on the increasing weight put on our superficial appearances. Hopefully books like this can help people become free thinkers.

Also, you can't beat those old Twighlight Zones!! The year 2000. lol.

Joylene said...

Did you see the size of that girl's waist! There should be a law!

Great post. Thanks.

Jemi Fraser said...

Great post. I love this story line. It's so relevant today, and was probably just as relevant in every incarnation. Society puts such ridiculous pressure on people to conform - and teens are the most vulnerable with their growing senses of self. I like the ending where she fights the status quo - takes a huge stance. Love it.

Miriam S. Forster said...

What's interesting to me is that the short story was published only a decade or so after 1984 by George Orwell came out. And the end there is kind of the same, the MC falling in line and changing for the society.

I think then the stories were warnings about what society could become, and so they ended darkly. Now, we know what society can become, and so we look for, and write, stories that give us hope that it can be changed.

Personally, I pull for hope, always.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I adore Westerfeld and Twilight Zone and yet never made the connection until you pointed it out. I like each of them for the different endings - positive and negative. This is what makes philosophical SF so fascinating to my (and dystopias) - the exploration of what could happen, as cautionary tales for what we should do.

Adventures in Children's Publishing said...

Great post. I knew about the Twilight Zone episode, but not about the short story. I'm going to have to go check that out. Not knowing Westerfeld's process, I wonder how much of the difference was sociological--conformity was valued differently back when the TZ episode aired--versus a difference in medium. In book form, Westerfeld had much more room to explore his character and what she really wanted. He also had a foil and a love interest (two, actually) pushing Tally in opposing directions. Tally's character and the stresses inflicted on her made her choices seem inevitable. But that's part of Westerfeld's brilliance, too.

Thought-provoking post. I love it!

Lisa and Laura said...

I really enjoyed Uglies and Pretties and I find the whole concept of creating a beautiful world fascinating. Our society is obsessed with beauty and I love the way Scott Westerfeld took that obsession and twisted it into a riveting story.

Clover said...

Fascinating post. I think I'd heard of the Twilight Zone episode, but had never seen it. AND I hadn't heard of Mind Rain either, that sounds like it could be interesting.

But what really grabbed me is what that author said at the end, about how authors only have a few things to say. That really made me think.

doctorcrankenstein said...

Cosmetic surgery has been in existence for centuries and I don't think that enough people realise this. People and the media are always talking about "modern society's pressure to conform" when in fact there is nothing modern about it! Greeks, Romans, Indians, Africans... they all did it. A range of things were done from something simple like having eye liner tattooed on, to foot binding and in some of the worse cases; genital mutilation. The pressure to look beautiful by societies standards and to conform are nothing new whatsoever.

And these sort of things are still going on today. The three authors have shown a dystopian future that is merely a reflection of the "dystopian past/present". For example Female Genital Mutilation conducted in Asia and Africa is often done against the persons consent... Just as in Tally's case.

Having said that I don't see how anyone can prefer anything other than the ending where the character resists the alteration.

I'm with Jeff. Perhaps it's time we take a sword to the Gordian Knot and start looking for a reset button.

Movies Gallery 2011 said...

Great info against Uglies. Keep posting. I follow you.
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