SFF in Conversation is a new monthly feature on The Book Smugglers in which we invite guests to talk about a variety of topics important to speculative fiction fans, authors, and readers. Our vision is to create a safe (moderated) space for thoughtful conversation about the genre, with a special focus on inclusivity and diversity in SFF. Anyone can participate and we are welcoming emailed topic submissions from authors, bloggers, readers, and fans of all categories, age ranges, and subgenres beneath the speculative fiction umbrella.

We continue our ongoing new series of posts “SFF in Conversation” with a post from Tom Pollock, British author of the Skyscraper Throne series. Ana loved the first bookThe City’s Son (The Kitschies Nominee for Golden Tentacle in 2012) and with the recent release of book 2 The Glass Republic, we wanted to invite Tom to talk about the ideas behind the Dystopian society in the new book.

The Glass Republic Tom Pollock

Please give it up for Tom Pollock, everyone!

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ON BEAUTY AND DYSTOPIA

“I should be more grateful for my natural beauty, it impacts the choices and friends we make, the jobs we apply for, how we treat our children, it impacts everything. It couldn’t be more critical to your happiness*.’”

– Dove ‘real beauty sketches’ advert

You might have seen this ad doing the rounds online a couple of months ago. A lot of people liked it. I didn’t, mostly because I think it was an elegant sugar pill designed to get you to swallow the quote above, which is a message that (a) I’m not convinced is true, and (b) even if it were true, just rolling over and ‘being grateful’ isn’t what I’d call an ideal response to society’s cataclysmic, remorseless over-prioritisation of looks.

Still, imagine that Dove’s literally right. Imagine your beauty was the most critical thing in the world. Imagine you lived in a city where looks were currency, where you had to scrimp and save to buy your features and where criminals would kill you to steal your face. A society of living reflections governed by a proud, and ruthless ruling class: the Mirrorstocracy.

Welcome to London-Under-Glass.

In a way, London-Under-Glass – the world of The Glass Republic – is a classic dystopia. There’s a society, and a commodity it values above all else. A small portion of its citizens have that commodity in great abundance, the majority have far less. Haves. Have-nots. Dystopia. Bob’s your uncle.

What makes London-Under-Glass a little different, however, is that the commodity in question is your face itself. A handful of freckles, an eye, a dimple, a fraction of a smile, can call be removed from you and traded. Wealth and status in this world depend on how on the intricacy and subtlety of the features you possess. The Mirrorstocracy are well provided for, they’re perfect copies of people in our world, and have the same complete faces we have. Most people on the other side of the mirror however, are born with only half a face. One side of their head – either the left or the right- has features on the front of it, the other half is as blank as unmarked paper and they have to wear a prosthetic to make it up.

The kicker though, isn’t the initial unequal distribution, rather it’s the way that society is structured around that inequality to magnify its impact.

A looking-glass lottery is held every year, the winner of which is put into a machine that turns them into a Mirrorstocrat. Everyone’s obsessed with it. It’s all anyone will talk about in the run up to the draw. A lottery winner is all many kids want to be when they grow up.

It’s illegal to hide your face, so everywhere you go, without respite, people judge you, weigh you, price you up (they’re not malicious, it’s just in the culture). Subconsciously, they compare you to the billboards and magazine covers showing the Mirrorstocracy with their perfect faces, and find you wanting. Worse still, Half-Faces cast no reflections. This is a society that says all your worth is how you’re seen, but you can’t see yourself. You have no say in your own value.

And then there’s the worst thing of all. The dark secret about living with half a face behind the mirror, the one that nobody talks about, but that keeps everyone in line.

If all fantasy worlds are in some way a mirror of the real world, then it’s probably obvious I’ve not had to distort the glass too far to make this one. It’s a commonplace truth that we live in a world where arbitrary standards of physical beauty are accorded far too much weight, whether or not Dove is right about exactly how much weight that is.

I’m certainly not the first writer to engage with this material in Speculative YA either, Uglies by Scott Westerfeld is probably the most famous example of a book that makes it front and centre. Even so, I think it bears further examination, partly because it’s a complex and fascinating area, and partly because I’m writing in a genre which has a tendency to put a lot of very similar looking young women on its book covers, Which is hard not to take as an endorsement of the idea that, in the eyes of the YA book industry at least, white, skinny and supine is all that constitutes beautiful.

And if that should prove to be the only kind of ‘beautiful’ that comes to ‘impact the choices and friends we make, the jobs we apply for, how we treat our children’ (if and when we should choose to have them) then Heaven help us.

*My emphasis

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Thank you, Tom! Now we turn over to you: please feel free to engage with the ideas presented here!

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10 Responses to SFF In Conversation: Tom Pollock on Beauty and Dystopia

  1. This sounds like a fascinating book and I’ll definitely be adding it to my TBR list! Our culture’s obsession with physical perfection (as our current Western culture defines it, which is quite different from the ways it was defined in past centuries or by different cultures) is one of the most toxic things about us, and I’m glad to see these assumptions being challenged in books like this.

  2. pabkins says:

    I totally agree the advertisement was strange. I look forward to picking up The Glass Republic – I couldn’t find it for sale in the US as of yet…is that right? Loved book 1 by the way!

  3. Linda W says:

    I’m also glad to see the standards of beauty challenged. Tom is right, and his premise is fascinating. We see the same idea of beauty stamped over and over on covers. I love the fact that his premise overturns the conventions.

  4. Anonymous says:

    @Linda

    How can we complain about the advertised idea of beauty? If anything, it tells us that white skinny woman are, in general, the most attractive humans. Even the east has taken an interest in “European” characters. The lack of anime and manga that show characters that look Eastern and not European is astounding. There are definitely variations but these are the abnormalities.
    Sex sells. People are willing to sacrifice long-term stability for short-term pleasure. This trait only helps us because it puts more money into circulation and ultimately allows more jobs. It is unbelievable that someone would favor a world where appearances means little over a world with less jobs.
    The problem with society is not this preference but the baggage that comes with it. The most obvious example would be that the love of most couples is completely artificial. Their love began because of a preference to appearance and it was sustained by the pressures of society. People are fully capable of loving someone outside their looks but it is rare to actually see. People boast about their relationship not being based on this but, in reality, it is more based on this than actual love.

  5. Tom Pollock says:

    Hello, Anonymous, thank you for stopping by.
    I know you addressed your comment to Linda, but I do hope that neither you nor she will mind if I give my two cents, as well.

    “If anything, it tells us that white skinny woman are, in general, the most attractive humans.”
    How right you are. This is indeed what it tells us. But here’s the point, when it tells us that, it lies.

    It tells fibs, porkies, humungous ones. Were it possible to cram the advertising, sales and marketing industries into a single pair of (fairly elastic) Y-fronts, they surely would spontaneously combust with the sheer false hood of it all.

    “White skinny woman are, in general, the most attractive humans.”

    Thank you for stating it like that: because laid out so baldly, who could fair to see it for what it is? A sexist, sizeist, horrendously racist, logically incoherent fallacy. Apart from anything else, it’s a giant category mistake, because, as I’m sure you know, there can be no fact of the matter about what ‘the most attractive humans’ are.

    Attraction is a subjective quality that varies hugely across time, circumstance culture and most importantly, individual. And yet, as you so incisively point out, advertising’s innuendo appears to insist otherwise, which can only serve to underline how full of bovine excrement it is.

    However, this lie, though egregious, is not the only one we’re being told. There is another, just as important, and it’s this: not only are there objective standards of beauty, but there are good, solid objective reasons why those standards should matter. Forgive me if I misinterpret you, but this appears to be something you’ve bought into, judging your claim that a world where appearances mattered less would be a world with fewer jobs in it.

    Now, I’m not an economist… oh no wait, I am an economist, by training, at least, and I know of no evidence what so ever that putting something other than slender white girls book covers would do anything at all to hurt either aggregate demand or employment. Indeed, a world where people in general, and women in particular were judged less on their looks would be a world where the work they do was valued more appropriately and more of it got done as a result.

    More work, more production, more income, more growth and yes, more jobs. Perhaps you can point me to a study I’ve missed?

    In the mean-time, let me leave you with this thought – two of the best selling YA books of all time are Twilight and The Hunger Games. One cover had an apple on it, the other a badge of a bird. Anyone who tells you that a thin white girl on the cover is the only thing that can sell a book is lying to you.

  6. Tom Pollock says:

    @R.J, @Linda Thanks! Glad you found it interesting.

    @Pabkins – Looking like next spring for the Stateside release. Sorry about that. Will keep my blog updated. Really glad you liked the first one!

  7. Tom Pollock says:

    @Anonymous, my apologies. The above got a little long and overly pushy.

  8. Anonymous says:

    *not the annonymous above* Great post-reply Tom. It’s “almost” as if we are already living in a dystopian society…

  9. Ty Bro says:

    My comment was deleted
    WTH

  10. Ana says:

    @Ty Bro – This comment has been removed because its content violates our stated policy for ‘SFF in Conversation.’ Any comments asserting racist, sexist, homophobic, or other hateful messages will be immediately deleted.

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