The monster without is the monster within. That's been a theme of literature since Beowulf fought Grendel, since Frankenstein animated a collection of loose body parts, since Dr. Jekyll turned into Mr. Hyde. The latest addition to this literary investigation is Michel Faber's UNDER THE SKIN. Faber's highly entertaining and thought-provoking novel creeps up on you with the realization that there are no easy answers, no purely good or bad choices in how we deal with monsters --- both those of our own device and those others have created to plague us. And he accomplishes this through a protagonist who, though alien in form, even alien unto herself, nonetheless embodies the complex paradoxes of the human condition.
Isserley picks up hitch hikers. But only male hitch hikers of a certain muscular build. She makes awkward conversation with them to determine if anyone is expecting them or will miss them. Those that pass the interview will wish they hadn't. In the first of a series of inversions, Faber puts a female in the predatory role in an erotically charged opening, made all the more ironical when we discover that Isserley is not only sexually mutilated, but is an alien creature whose purpose on the roadways of the Scottish Highlands actually involves another primal appetite.
Isserley, who once thought her sexuality would entitle her to a place amongst the elite of her home planet, has chosen this assignment. While preferable to the alternative fate at home, it required subjecting her to a painful and humiliating operation to enable her to sit upright. Perhaps most insulting and ludicrous of all, she is equipped with huge, balloon-like breasts with which to lure her victims. The aliens have discovered what human women have known all along: even the remotest suggestion of sex makes guys stupid. And also sometimes dangerous.
So yet another inversion here is for the alien to be a highly sympathetic character, not the cliche menace of pulp science fiction, and for the story to be told from the alien's point of view. Though Isserley may naturally walk on all fours with a furred skin that wouldn't put her out of place in a herd of sheep, her psychology is decidedly human. Faber reinforces the point by having Isserley and her fellows refer to themselves as "human," while our own species are called "vodsels." How Isserley justifies her behavior towards vodsels echoes not only our own justifications for the treatment of animals, but people of foreign nationalities, races, and religion. That what is different can be treated differently.
Despite her isolation and decidedly dim prospects for a return to "normal" life, Isserley has some consolations --- she prides herself on doing a good job, and the natural beauty of Earth far exceeds that of her ecologically devastated homeland. This is all threatened both by the arrival of Amlis Vess, son of the owner of Vess Industries for whom she works, and a technological advancement that will eliminate the need for her employment. Amlis is the pampered heir whose privileged situation makes it very easy for him to rebel against his father and the sullied commercial activities of his father's company. For this, Isserley hates him. Yet she also can't help but be attracted to him and, despite the hopelessness that the handsome Amlis would have any interest in her maimed body, Isserley permits herself the vaguest fantasy that he might find an interest in her, might possibly provide an escape to a better life.
Isserley does escape, but not as she might expect, in a bittersweet ending that makes you smile, even as it disturbs you, about how life turns out for us all, regardless of our physical make-up and where we call home.
Reviewed by David Soyka on July 23, 2000