Sunday, 20 June 2010

Self mutilation and brain plasticity: Westerfield's 'cutters'

Scott Westerfield's Specials, the third book in his Uglies series, follows the series heroine, Tally Youngblood, in her third incarnation: this time as a new breed of Special Circumstances agents known as 'cutters'.

On his website Westerfield says of the Uglies series, "I love a good action sequence, and this series is of full of hoverboard chases, escapes through ancient ruins, and leaps off tall buildings in bungee jackets. It's the sort of fast-paced book I couldn't get enough of when I was young."

I found Specials hard going: once you've read one hoverboard fight scene, you've read them all. And several times I put the book down because I was bored with it. On the surface the novel is dealing with several themes and topics that I'm interested in looking at throughout my Phd, including brain rewiring (or plasticity) and self mutilation as a form of self expression. However, Westerfield didn't explore these themes in any detail, rather using them to add a degree of surface tension and interest to the novel's action.

Unlike the protagonist in Bates' Crossing the Line, the Specials cutters cut themselves to feel 'icy', that is, to create a feeling of power and control, and the act of cutting is performed consciously, not in a dissociative state. The cutters wear their scars with pride like a tattoo or ritual scar, rather than hiding them in shame. By the novel's end, however, Tally realises that cutting herself is a form of denying her true feelings. But even though cutting isn't portrayed as a positive act, Tally's feelings about cutting - why she does it and why she stops - aren't covered in any depth.

Westerfield has made no claims about writing a psychological novel, although on his website he does lightly touch on some psychological issues when he answers questions about the US' obsession with surgically enhanced beauty. But his focus on action scenes means the novel's characters lack substance. For all their hoverboarding and bungee jumping, clambering on and off helicopters and breaking into high security buildings, they're a little boring. Of course, with a focus on action, it was probably wasn't Westerfield's intention to dig into the meat of the issues he covers. But I think if he had, it would have made for a more interesting series.

For my research needs, the Uglies series gives a general and cursory coverage of self mutilation and brain plasticity (in that the protagonist, Tally, is able to rewire her brain to overcome the 'lesions' added to her brain to make her first a Pretty then a Special Circumstances Agent). But it's probably too cursory in its treatment of these topics for my needs.