So I just finished reading Under the Skin, the debut novel by Michael Faber, and I didn’t take to it at all. I usually love short science fiction stories such as this but this one seemed to take things a little too far. I adore books such as The Machine by James Smythe, and one of my favourite books of all time is Never Let Me go by Kazuo Ishiguro. They offered limited looks at a fundamentally different world, the reader seeing the world through the characters’ eyes. The larger world remained behind the curtain, although it was obvious that the author had done a lot of work to make it believable and convincing.
Under the Skin is very much in the same vein, but seems to misunderstand the craft entirely. We are introduced to Isserley, a strange woman who seems to have an obsession with picking up hitchhikers. Although it is never explicitly said, it becomes obvious that Isserley is an alien, who has been augmented to look like a human, and she is picking up hitchers to abduct and take back to her farm, where other aliens will harvest them for their meat. The meat will then get sent back to their home planet to be sold for a high price.
I think the novel was written well. Faber gets across a lot of facts by only alluding to them. The situation is left up to the reader to slowly piece together and that’s a really coll thing. Faber also uses a made up language to address certain things, but doesn’t drown the text in them. For instance, humans being used for meat are called ‘vodsels’, but this is never explained. It is just used in the right context enough to make sense. The reader is given ample opportunity to figure these things out so I have to applaud Faber for that. He isn’t showing you how clever he is (which is usually what happens with this kind of issue), he’s actively letting us live in that world.
The main issue I had with the novel was simply that I didn’t really care about any of the characters. All of the characters, except the hitchers Isserley picks up, are aliens. There was no one for me to relate to. Isserley seems quite content in her job of killing humans, at least as we start to get to know her. Even with her peers, she seems to be argumentative and rude. I’m unsure how Faber wanted me to feel about her character, because there was no possible way in for me.
Under the Skin has a lot going on behind Isserley’s story and unlike my previous examples, that other story seems more interesting. I would have been interested to learn more about the aliens and their homeworld, how they got to Earth and how they learned about the value of human meat. This maybe wouldn’t fit in the story that Faber is telling but, for me, it may have made me care a bit more. I would like to spend more time here in this world, but I am never given any active reason to stay. Which is sad.
Also, I haven’t seen the movie but apparently it’s a very loose adaptation.
Under the Skin is a small window into a wider world, and while it is definitely interesting, Faber seems mostly concerned with showing us the wrong things. While I’m totally sure some of this is just my personal taste, the story fell flat with unlikeable characters and unrelateable situations. While I would encourage anyone who likes short science fiction stories to take a look and definitely see a few strong elements to this story, this one was just not for me.
UNDER THE SKIN by MICHEL FABER