Isserley is an alien whose assignment on earth is to abduct male (preferably muscular and burly) hitchikers for their processing, in a subterranean area under a barn in Scotland where she and her fellow aliens are based, as farmed animals that are castrated, made mute by tongue-amputation and fattened up in pens like calves for their veal. After a few months, they are eventually slaughtered and butchered for meat and then transported back to Isserley's native land, which is portrayed as a dark, arid, unpleasant place where meat is a rare and expensive delicacy.

Vaguely canine in her original form, Isserley has had to undergo mutilating surgery to pass as a human whose day job is to drive on the A9 of Scotland picking up unsuspecting men and then, after sometimes quite interesting conversations, paralyzing them by flicking a switch that activates twin jets that come up through the front passenger seat injecting an immediately acting curare-like drug. Isserley then transports them back to the farm.

In constant physical pain from the surgery and the unnatural upright posture, and always questioning herself, her role on earth, her feminity amongst the otherwise all male alien workforce, Isserley falls in love with the earth's natural world (there are not oceans or lakes on her world), especially Scotland's lochs, rain, cloud and snow. Sheep hold a special place in her heart.

Amlis Vess, the son of the owner of the company that is selling earthmeat at exorbitant prices back home, shows up for an unnannounced site visit and curiosity since he is ideologically opposed to this killing of animals - he has no idea how sentient and intelligent earthlings are and this fact is carefully kept secret from him during his brief visit, which is also marked by his marvelling at earth's natural beauties and what appears to be an emotional or sexual attraction to Isserley.

After some rough handling by one of the hitchhikers who attempts to rape her, her troubling interactions with Amlis Vess, news that the police have taken notice of a missing hitchhiker and are conducting an investigation, and her discovery that there may be a replacement for her in the offing - Isserley decides to strike out on her own. The end of the novel is, although not shocking, not expected.


Michel Faber, who was born in the Netherlands and grew up in Australia, has lived in the Scottish Highlands since 1992. He is an award-winning short story writer whose novel, The Crimson Petal and the White, the story of a Victorian prostitute, brought him to instant critical and popular attention and was a New York Times bestseller when it came out in 2002.

Under the Skin was Faber's first novel and as such is quite an amazing tour de force. One can understand why it was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award. Although his book strictly belongs in a category we call science fiction, like Mary Shelley, Faber spends extremely little time on the "science", or advanced technology that underpins the abilities or skills of the protagonist's activities or achievements and much more time on characterization.

As the title suggests, the notion of what is superficial and what is not, what is simple and what is profound - these are frequently encountered threads in the novel. On the face of it one might expect the author to spend more time on the more gruesome or technical aspects since they are often what science fiction readers like to encounter. And although, having read a review such as this or the one I read in the New York Times, one would expect to be appalled or disgusted by the industry and farming on humans for their flesh, the author disappoints, or, rather, pleasantly surprises such assumptions with a rich and--yes, unlikely as it may seem--tender (no carnivorous pun intended) novel. One empathasizes with Isserley and--the mark of a good writer, fairness--with her victims. As does Isserley who cries and apologizes to her last victim after paralyzing him.

Faber is brilliant in his subversion of our preconceived beliefs and language when it comes to animals and humans. In fact, adopting, like Anthony Burgess in his Clockwise Orange, a pseudo-Russian language vocabulary, Isserley and her kind refer to the human earthlings as "vodsels" and to themselves as "human". Although Isserley has no moral compunctions about subjecting such obviously sentient beings as vodsels (human earthlings) to a subterranean fate of farming, castration, fattening and then death, she reacts with a dumbfoundedness when her boss's son visits earth, sees sheep for the first time and wonders if Isserley has ever considered using them for meat:

"Isserly blinked repeatedly, fumbling for something to say. How could he even think of such a thing? Was it a ruthlessness that linked father and son?" (p. 240)

It is difficult to stay the straight and narrow between an arch coyness, irony and satire in such a work but Faber pulls it off, elegantly.



Place Published

Edinburgh, Scotland



Page Count