Under the Skin features an extraterrestrial named Isserley, who has been surgically altered to resemble a human being, she drives the Scottish Highlands looking for muscular men to farm for their meat, an expensive delicacy on her world. “Scarred and awkward, yet strangely erotic and threatening, she hears passengers reveal who might miss them should they disappear…”
Optimist: One thing I didn’t expect coming from the film to the novel is that the “humans” (as the aliens call themselves, while homosapiens are referred to as “vodsels”) aren’t so advanced as to be able to easily disguise themselves as homosapiens. Isserley has been left angry and bitter at how her body has been contorted and mutilated to make her look like us (and only passably at that), and she suffers from severe chronic pains. Her rage encompasses the surgeons for mutilating her, the elite class of her species for betraying her, and males (of both species) for objectifying and pitying her.
Cynic: Isserley is a great character but I’m not a fan of omnipotent narration, especially when it’s used so sporadically. It almost feels like cheating when we’re explicitly told what the hitchhikers are thinking.
Optimist: We don’t always know what they’re thinking. It’s used sparingly, rather than sporadically, and in a specific context. And besides, it’s these sections which give us some of the funniest and most interesting parts of the book. Like how every single one of the men she picks up doesn’t realise she looks a little odd for a human because every one of them – even the non-chauvinists – are distracted by her huge breasts. It’s funny until you realise how believable it is. It’s part of what makes it, in my view, a great feminist book.
Cynic: I didn’t know whether I felt that more sympathy for the vodsels or for Isserley. That’s kind of fucked up. I mean, look at me calling humans “vodsels”.
Optimist: That kind of divided loyalty is one of the book’s great strengths. Though Isserley shows herself to be capable of unimaginable cruelty against our kind, she is still essentially an exploited worker. She thinks about us in the same way we think about our sources of food, though at times has the same misgivings that I, as a meat-eater, have about the morality of what I’m doing.
Cynic: Don’t remind me. It’s when a few of them escape that we first get the sense of what’s going on. One of them tries to throw a clump of dirt at Isserley, but is so bulky from overfeeding that it isn’t able to. That in itself was a pretty horrific image, but then we find out about the cutting out of tongues and the castration…it’s horrifying. I can’t get some of those images out of my mind.
Optimist: I found that more funny than horrifying, though the book goes for a sense of both. It’s very satirical and over-the-top and yet, oddly, still “realistic”, in a sense. My favourite parts of the book were those with Amlis Vess. The dynamic between him and Isserley is fascinating; he is wealthy, idle and immensely privileged. Isserley is, as I mentioned, an exploited worker. She has suffered because of people like him, and our sympathies lie thoroughly with her. And yet it is Isserley who is preying on us “humans”, while Amlis Vess is – for want of a better term – an animal rights activist, vehemently opposed to the slaughter of living, thinking creatures for meat. It’s an interesting juxtaposition. Vess’s idealism doesn’t automatically make him a hero. It could even be seen as self-indulgent – the concerns of the rich and privileged. Isserley doesn’t have the luxury to sit around philosophising on the morality of meat eating. She has a job to do.
Cynic: It’s interesting, this whole thing about empathy and power, but not exactly the most original of conflicts.
Optimist: My description doesn’t do it justice. It’s not one of those sci-fi novels in which characters are just vessels for the writer’s big themes Under the Skin is first and foremost character-driven. We genuinely care about Isserley, and that makes the big ideas of the novel much more interesting as they pertain to her character. All round, it’s a really fantastic novel.
Cynic: On balance, I’d say I agree.