Under the Skin

Michel Faber
Under the Skin Cover

Michel Faber - Under The Skin (2000)


"The thing about vodsels was, people who knew nothing whatsoever about them were apt to misunderstand them terribly. There was always the tendency to anthropomorphize. A vodsel might do something which resembled a human action; it might make a sound analogous with human distress, or make a gesture analogous with human supplication, and that made the ignorant observer jump to conclusions.

In the end, though, vodsels couldn't do any of the things that really defined a human being. They couldn't siuwil, they couldn't mesnishtil, they had no concept of slan. In their brutishness, they'd never evolved to use hunshur; their communities were so rudimentary that hississins did not exist; nor did these creatures seem to see any need for chail, or even chailsinn.

"And, when you looked into their glazed little eyes, you could understand why."

'Under The Skin' by Michel Faber is a striking piece of role reversal and an unflinching look at the ease with which sentient people can be dehumanised. It is at once an impressive piece of SF imagination and a necessary examination of humanity's cruelty, and beautifully written to boot. The novel follows Isserley, a member of a race of dog-like aliens surgically altered to appear like an attractive human female so that she can pick up unwary human male hitchhikers who are drugged, castrated and de-tongued and processed into voddissin, a ludicrously expensive delicacy on Isserley's homeworld. Her normal routine is interrupted when Almis Vess, the idle rich son of the company in charge, visits the farm and sets free some of the human prisoners, claiming that humans are people too and shouldn't be eaten.

One of the most striking aspects of the novel is the extent to which humans are othered. The novel is told in the third person from Isserley's point of view, so she refers to her species as humans, human beings and people, whilst referring to Homo sapiens as vodsels. This device not only cleverly reminds us of Isserley's alien perspective, but indicates how she and her people view us, not as intelligent beings with autonomy and rights, but as animals for the slaughter. This is further emphasised when Faber describes the processing and holding pens at the farm, and Isserly reflects that it's easy to mistake the vodsels for human when they are wearing clothes and walking around and talking, but it's possible to see their true animal nature once they have had their tongues and clothes removed, have been fattened up and are locked up in pens with their own filth. This of course reflects some of the thought processes that allows real world atrocities to happen in reality, whereby concentration camp guards can come to see their victims as less than human and so undeserving of basic human rights. It's a powerful and disturbing scene.

But 'Under The Skin' doesn't limit itself to portraying just one kind of systematic inhumanity. Gradually, from the details Isserley reveals about her past life, her betrayed hope and dreams and her fears, we learn a lot about her people and the dystopian world they live in. Her home planet is uninhabitable on the surface, so everyone is forced to live underground. Their society is strictly stratified, with the rich living sheltered lives of luxury, using their power and prestige to manipulate naive young girls like Isserley used to be into sleeping with them for protection, while the vast majority work themselves into an early grave in dire, poisonous conditions. Deftly and in the background, without resorting to any moments of chunky exposition, Faber builds up a truly horrifying picture of a culture built entirely on exploitation and privilege that has destroyed its own ecosystem through its own greed and hubris, a dark mirror to our own. Of course this is a people that would have no problem with eating another sentient people.

Amlis Vess, for all his professed compassion for the vodsels, is ultimately just a tourist. He admits that at the end of the day he's probably only going on this grand crusade just to annoy his father, who wants him to inherit the family business. Isserley quite rightly calls him out on his privilege a number of times, but she's hopelessly in love with him. This blinds her to the fact that he's perfectly happy to chase a trendy cause like vodsel welfare whilst doing nothing to alleviate the hellish plight of the working class on their homeworld, or indeed the ingrained sexism that is clearly still a problem there.

It is perhaps in its feminism that 'Under The Skin' is at its most angry, and it is here that Faber reserves the book's most caustic satire, for Isserley herself is a victim as well. Having been through extensive and painful surgery to look like a completely different species, she is wracked by constant pain and in a constant state of extreme dysmorphia. The surgeon took Isserley's image from a magazine, so she has ludicrously oversized breasts that give her incredible back pains. Her face, arms and legs are all covered with surgical scars, but none of this matters to the men she picks up, who simply see a large pair of breasts. Faber mines some truly dark humour out of the idea that this would be enough to entrap horny males. The only parts of the book that aren't told from Isserley's point of view are from the point of view of the males she picks up in her car. The men, not even knowing that Isserley is an alien, other and objectify her as much as Isserley's people do to us vodsels. This is a book about meat markets, after all. Isserley's job is pretty much to act as live bait. Not only is she objectified by the vodsels, she gets this treatment reflected back at her by her own people as well. All her colleagues at the farm are male, and they patronise her to her face and smirk and make crude jokes behind her back, while her bosses put her in a situation where she is exposed to the risk of sexualised violence as part of her job. Small wonder that she winds up having to remind her people that she is the same as they are under the skin.