Chris's Reviews > Mind-Rain: Your Favorite Authors on Scott Westerfeld's Uglies Series

Mind-Rain by Scott Westerfeld
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Jan 29, 10

bookshelves: life, nonfiction, not-graphic, sci-fi, ya, adult

What a great collection of essays! I was going to read for a bit over coffee then finally go see Downey’s Sherlock Holmes, but I ended up ditching the entertaining movie to spend my day off with a book of literary criticism. Among the mix are essays that go into the psychology of the characters, ones that look at cultural, scientific, and literary predecessors and themes, and two influential short stories, each with a short introduction by Westerfeld. Some of the essays argue that Tally is a mostly passive protagonist and others argue that she is all “chutzpah! Guts! Cunning! Daring!” (Sobat) One makes the case that Shay is a much more intelligent, capable hero than Tally and another that the main motivating force behind the action in the story is Shay’s hidden romantic love for her. A couple draw interesting parallels between Tally and Dr. Cable. And much more.

Although each had its own voice and style, I generally found them to be accessible yet thoughtful, what I would consider prime examples of critical analysis. The variety of different reactions among the essayists makes the collection a model for book discussions, and I could easily see it incorporated into classrooms. Those reactions also accentuated the fact that a book’s meaning is determined in the interplay between the writer and reader. Perhaps most importantly, this book deepened my appreciation of Westerfeld’s books and their complexity of theme, character, and story. An added bonus is that it introduced me to a number of new authors. I love that the bio info for each is at the end of the essay instead of the beginning so that I had context and curiosity about the authors by the time I read them.

Some bits that I especially liked:

From “Two Princes” by Sarah Beth Durst

Shay is about as emotionally mature as my cat. (I adore my cat, but her favorite pastime is to roll onto her back as if she’s inviting you to pet her fuzzy belly and then attempt to gnaw your hand off at the wrist.)
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She’s the one that he pushes to take calorie-purging pills because, he says, hunger sharpens the mind. (For the record, it doesn’t sharpen my mind. When I’m hungry, all I think is “food, food, food” like the dog in that fake-bacon commercial. But hey, if it works for them, great.)


From “Challenging the Gods” by Rosemary Clement-Moore

Human beings are strange creatures. We don’t just like conformity, we’re engineered for it. As a species and a society, we tend to ostracize those who are too different. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense, but sociologically it can lead to the equivalent of inbreeding: cultural stagnation and complacency.

Maybe that’s why people around the world have legends of disobedient characters who bring needed change to the world. There are gods like Loki in Scandinavia, the Monkey-King in China, and Coyote in the traditions of the Native American Southwest. Other tales feature animals, like Anansi the spider, in Eastern African stories, and Br’er Rabbit, a combination of Native and African-American folktales.

These trickster characters are always wily and clever (even though their vanity or pride can make them rash or foolish), and their actions are often not very heroic in the traditional sense. They hoax and manipulate, they break rules, and they always shake up the status quo. The trickster is a character who makes things happen and challenges the system. . . .

The freedom to think for oneself is exactly what Tally Youngblood brought to the pretties. This is the metaphorical fire from the gods that Prometheus gave to humankind. And here is the big difference between Tally and Dr. Cable. Tricksters do in myth and story what these outside-edges-of-the-bell-curve people have done throughout history. They make things happen. They make
change happen.

From “Beauty Smackdown” by Janette Rallison

We can claim we aren’t affected by looks, but the way we spend our money says differently. So have several clinical studies too boring to quote. In summary they basically say that good-looking people get more attention, more dates, better jobs, and even increased leniency in criminal sentences. I would put footnotes here, but really, does anyone out there doubt this information?
-----
But here’s one of those book club questions that will carry you through several chocolate chip cookies: Is the beautiful-but-stupid person a valid stereotype or just a bunch of sour grapes from the less-gorgeous masses? And if there is a correlation between beauty and stupidity, is it something people are born with or just a byproduct of the way good-looking people are treated? . . .

So how is it possible that we as a society want to be attractive, yet at the same time look down on beautiful people?
-----
Love no longer has the power to make ugly things, like Zane’s shaky movements, desirable in Tally’s eyes. She asks, “What did Dr. Cable do to us, Shay? Do we have some kind of special lesions in our brains? Something that makes everyone else look pathetic? Like we’re better than them?” (Specials)

Shay’s answer--that they
are better, and that everyone else looks confused and pitiful because they are--is good evidence that Shay either has brain lesions or has just been voted homecoming queen, one of the two.

From “Conformity by Design” by Linda Gerber

In the United States, we have an old adage that says, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Japan has a similar saying with a much different take on things: “The nail that stands up gets beaten down.” . . .

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. We all saw what enforced conformity did to Tally’s society. But that’s the point. Not all societies and cultures are the same. In our Western world, we are taught to value individuality, but many Asian cultures such as Japan value sameness in pursuit of social harmony.

Which philosophy is better? With conformity, a society runs more efficiently and maintains its current state, but with individuality, the encouragement of new ideas advances society (or pulls it back, depending on the idea). With conformity comes peaceful living and with individualism comes cultural productivity. Both offer desirable--though different--outcomes. In the words of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, “You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.” Perhaps the best we can hope for is to appreciate the value of each point of view.
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In the end, that might be the important distinction, not conformity versus individuality, but choice versus no choice.


From “Liking What You See: A Documentary” by Ted Chiang

Brain damage is never a good idea, no matter what your friends say.

From “Naturally Unnatural” by Will Shetterly

We have never been content with our natural selves. Before recorded history, we began changing our looks by cutting our hair; tattooing, piercing, and scarring our skin; filing our teeth, binding our feet; elongating our necks; and reshaping our skulls. Modifying ourselves must be a basic human instinct. We do it for social reasons, to identify with a group. We do it for sexual reasons, to be more attractive to people within a group. We do it for spiritual reasons: shaven heads and unshorn hair are ways to show that we’ve taken a religious path. We change ourselves so naturally that we often fail to notice we are doing it: Conservative Jewish, Christian, and Muslim teachers agree that people should not alter the natural bodies that God gave us—and to show we believe our God-given bodies are perfect, men should be circumcised and women should cover their hair.

From “The S-Word” by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Maybe the people in charge didn’t realize that they were only telling half the story. Maybe they weren’t hoarding scientific knowledge as a means of wielding power over the rest of the population. Maybe, deep down, Dr. Cable is made of lollipops and pixie dust.

But I doubt it.

Hoarding scientific knowledge gives you a certain kind of power--the kind that allows you to endorse whatever “truth” best suits your needs. From the perspective of the people in charge, full scientific disclosure would be a nightmare. Far better for them to just legitimize their own views by giving the world a taste of science than to allow the populace to think scientifically about things themselves.
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Dr. Cable goes so far as to specifically seek out as her subjects people who oppose her at every turn. It takes a very special kind of genius to think that it is a good idea to make one’s own enemies faster, stronger, crueler, and harder to defeat than they otherwise would be. Personally, no matter how tempting it might be, I make it a policy not to surgically bestow near invincibility upon the people who would most like to see me dead.


From “Lies and Consequences” by Delia Sherman

History suggests that most people don’t mind being manipulated as much as you might think.
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Quotes Chris Liked

Ted Chiang
“Brain damage is never a good idea, no matter what your friends say.”
Ted Chiang, Mind-Rain: Your Favorite Authors on Scott Westerfeld's Uglies Series

Jennifer Lynn Barnes
“Personally, no matter how tempting it might be, I make it a policy not to surgically bestow near invincibility upon the people who would most like to see me dead.”
Jennifer Lynn Barnes, Mind-Rain: Your Favorite Authors on Scott Westerfeld's Uglies Series


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