Scott Westerfeld’s Impostors Is a Powerful Return to the Uglies Universe
Scott Westerfeld is one of most well-known names in young adult literature, and the Uglies is one of his most beloved series. After a decade, Westerfeld is returning to that universe with Impostors, a sequel series that takes place after the conclusion of the Uglies. The former is government gone and a new one is in its place. The heroine from those books, Tally, is now just a legend who is off being an adult and we have a new heroine: Frey.
Frey is Rafi’s twin sister—and her body double. Their powerful father has many enemies, and the world has grown dangerous as the old order falls apart. So while Rafi was raised to be the perfect daughter, Frey has been taught to kill. Her only purpose is to protect her sister, to sacrifice herself for Rafi if she must.
When her father sends Frey in Rafi’s place as collateral in a precarious deal, she becomes the perfect impostor—as poised and charming as her sister. But Col, the son of a rival leader, is getting close enough to spot the killer inside her. As the deal starts to crumble, Frey must decide if she can trust him with the truth . . . and if she can risk becoming her own person.
As so often seen in Westerfeld’s books, Impostors is about free thinking, questioning authority, and the courage to find your own identity. Along with a fantastic group of writers, I got to speak with Scott Westerfeld about his return to the Uglies universe, his environmental themes, and how he feels the series connects to the present day.
Westerfeld: When I went back to the Uglies world, one of the things I was trying to do was to capture some of that detail, that specificity and complexity that I think readers brought to the world that wasn’t there before. And, obviously, it’s a different world. In Tally’s world, because everyone’s had the operation, because everyone’s pretty, because everyone’s a bubblehead, it was okay for that world to be smoothed over and rounded out a bit, a little bit like a fairy tale. You know, there are some aspects of the books that are like a fairy tale. Her apprehension of the world is not super complicated and deep … at first.
But of course, Impostors takes place 15 years later, somewhere between 15 and 20 years later, and the bubblehead operation—the Pretty regime—has been overthrown. People don’t get the operation anymore and as a result, it’s a really different world. It has a lot more complexity, it has a lot more danger, the cities aren’t all the same. They’re all different, so they’re all like the hoverboards in Indiana. Everything is localized. Everything’s been personalized. That world has gone off in all different directions, so when you travel from one city to another, a lot of things change. Some of the cities are kind of like utopias. Some of them are much more of dictatorships. They’ve all gone in different directions.
I wanted to capture that in one simple image, which was this hoverboard.
Westerfeld: I’ve always been interested in, you know, what happens after. You know, what is the happily ever after? Because there are no REAL happily ever afters. Nothing is ever solved, nothing’s ever easy. You have to work at everything. You have to work at freedom. You have to work at relationships. You have to work at—you know, there’s a whole thing, probably every 10 seconds some writer somewhere tweets, “Just because you have one published book doesn’t mean it’s easy from then on.” You know, there is no ultimate success. There is no ultimate safety, which is also a very Machiavellian feel.
I feel like what the Pretty regime—for all of its terribleness and constraints—what it did achieve was a kind of stability. There is a line in Uglies, which is, “Freedom has a way of destroying things,” and it might get quoted in Impostors somewhere. But yeah, I think that’s what we’re looking at in Impostors, this sort of breaking down of norms, of the old world.
Press: Uglies, Impostors, and your Spill Zone series all sort of deal with an environmental disaster, and I wanted to know what keeps drawing you back to this theme.
Westerfeld: I do think global warming is the issue that fundamentally underlies everything else that we’re doing, and our future depends on it, and our planet depends on it. And it’s very slow and very hard to see, and that makes it a very difficult thing to write about, a very difficult thing to dramatize. I think that’s one reason—you know, if it was an asteroid coming toward us and it was going to hit us in two months, we’d probably work on solving the problem a little faster.
But because it’s going to mess us up somewhere between 50 and 200 years from now, it’s just there. It’s just a fact. It’s just reality. I think anybody who’s young really has a bigger stake in it. It’s not going to really materially change my life, probably, unless Manhattan floods, which could happen. You know, if I lived on Avenue C, it already would have affected my life, but I live on 2nd Avenue, so it’s like I’ve got another three meters or something.
But I’m old enough that regardless of what happens, it’s not going to do me in. But if you’re 15 now, that’s another 35 years you have to deal with this more than I do. So I do think it’s the big issue of our time in a sort of low key, subtle, lit fuse kind of way.
Press: I was a massive fan of Uglies and Pretties, all of your work basically, and was really excited when I found out that you were expanding that world even further. What is that writing process like, going back to a work that you had sort of completed or taken a break from for years? How do you re-immerse yourself in that? What was your process for that and what was the driving force for wanting to do that?
Westerfeld: It was about 10 years from my last writing to my first writing, so a 10-year gap. Because Extras came out in 2007, I finished writing it in 2007—it was a very late book. I started this in earnest—well, I guess 2016, so about nine years. And the first thing I had to do, the most important thing I think, was to relearn that language. There’s obviously all the slang, like “bubblehead” and “happy-making” and “nervous-making”, all that sort of Pretties slang. But that’s just the slang part, and that part had always been kicked back at me on Twitter and other places by kids who speak it and like to tweet me and write to me using that language.
But there’s another subtler thing that I realized. I would start to write, and I would use the word police, and I was like, police? Like, is that word anywhere in the Uglies series? Because it’s a very particular word that implies a very certain set of power relationships, relationships between the state and people that aren’t necessarily of that world. So I made myself this one, big, giant document, which was everything in the Uglies world, and I would just do a word search, and police didn’t come up. And I was like, “Well, what would they call them?”
And then I realized, “Oh, yeah, they’re ‘wardens,’” which is a very different vibe and a very different feel.
I had to learn all that language, which was just word substitution, but I think one of the reasons why the Uglies series has been successful is that its language conveys the ideology of that world. It’s almost a little bit of an Orwellian society, so the language has been pared back and a lot of words are missing. So I kept checking words to make sure, is this an Uglies word? Does this word belong in the Ugly universe? And when it didn’t, then it would pop out into this sort of Machiavelli end of things.
I was reading from Book 2 to Justine [Larbalestier, Westerfeld’s partner] and she was like, “Napalm? What?” I was like, “Yeah, you’re right. It wouldn’t be called that.” They probably wouldn’t have it, but also it would be something much more fuzzy.
Press: What I was thinking about when I was re-reading the series to prepare for this, is how with technology today, we have synthesized that process and made it into smaller things. You can transform yourself through different filters and stuff, and the way that we now advertise that idea that you kind of see in the Uglies universe. So I wonder, as you talk about this world, do you see certain things that you think are the same thing, but it’s done in smaller ways, that people are sort of internalizing that same mentality?
Westerfeld: I was talking to a 19-year-old woman recently about this, and she said that when she and her friends take a group shot, group selfie, they all want approval, right? Because you’re going to put this on social media, a lot of people are going to see it. But also, there’s Facetune. You have apps now that do low-key Photoshop or cheap, easy Photoshop to change our faces. And of course, when you’re trying to Facetune five different people in a shot, apparently, that leads to, you know, issues, because if two people’s faces are close and you’re like, now I look different.
Kids are growing up with the idea that you construct your identity through technology. That’s just automatic. That’s the most obvious thing in the world. And they’re all engaged in this digital version of turning themselves into Pretties. And of course, different people have different skills. Like, some people will legitimately know Photoshop, and some people use something like Facetune. Some people just use the app that just makes your face go bloop.
Or, there are people who won’t talk on the phone with their friends unless they have the bunny ears and a dinosaur nose or a pig nose, like in the beginning of Uglies, because that sort of thing is a mask to hide behind. So it’s not necessarily about looking beautiful. It’s just about adding layers and layers and layers, which in my day we used to do with having hair over your face.
But I think we’re definitely living through a period where the Pretty world has already come into existence online. It’s just not meat and flesh and knives and anesthetic. It’s pixels now, but it’s kind of eerily close.
Press: I think you can totally read it alone, and there’s kind of an ominous—like you know that there’s stuff that you don’t have a deep knowledge of, but it’s just the creepy backdrop to what’s happening here. And you want to know more, but there’s so much happening in here that it just sort of sets the mood. But I wonder how you anticipate other people who are only going to read this, maybe.
Westerfeld: I do think that any good science fiction novel feels like it’s the fourth book in the trilogy, because there’s time between. You know, if you’re really in the deep future, like 300 years or so, once you get out there, a lot of stuff has happened. And if you don’t sense that, it doesn’t work. I always try to do that. I’m always trying to make it feel like stuff has happened in the past.
There’s the old trick they always did on Star Trek—it was called the Star Trek Rule of Three—where they would say, “the Magna Carta, the Constitution, the Humanoid Chronicles of SETI 4.” They would always list three things, moving in time, two of which you’d heard of, and one of which was in between then and now, and so it was their past and our future. I always try to generate that stuff in my work.
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