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(Book Review): Under the Skin by Michel Faber

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.


(Book Review) World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks

I read this back in first year and I’ve wanted to reread it for quite a while. This summer I finally got the chance.

World War Z remains a particularly impressive novel. It seamlessly weaves together survival stories from all over the globe into a single, coherent narrative chronicling everything form the initial outbreak to the how humanity came to win the war and this structure gives it great scope for diversity in the stories.

Realism is the best thing World War Z has going for it. Everything from politics and history to religion and culture factors into how states respond to the crisis- the most ready example is the Israeli civil war which erupts after the government decided to abandon Jerusalem. The inclusion of certain world leaders adds another dimension of realism to the story. For example, Nelson Mandela (though he’s not mentioned by name) gives moral authority and credibility to the military plan which saves the human race but sacrifices millions of lives in the process. This realism is, in my opinion, the great triumph of World War Z and why it stands out as such a particularly impressive zombie story. However, the inclusion of other, less permanent or renowned world figures e.g. the U.S. President and Vice President, who are heavily implied to be real-life politicians Colin Powell and Howard Dean respectively, serves to severely date the book. But to be fair to the book there was a very interesting dynamic between those particular characters which I did really enjoy.

A few other problems were more noticeable this time round. Though the zombie war was global the novel it’s still quite US-centric, which is always a bit frustrating. And a couple of the stories just aren’t as well thought-out or believable as the others e.g. one set in Japan follows a kid who’s apparently so obsessed with his computer that he doesn’t notice the city outside his window going up in flames – or even the fact that his parents have been missing for days! This section read like a “kids these days” lecture with added zombies.

However, most of the stories are very well thought-out and exciting, and a few of my personal favourite stories deserve honourable mentions. One involves a pilot who has to punch-out of her plane in the middle of a vast infected zone. Another is the story of the Indian General Raj-Singh who is a legendary figure throughout the book. There’s also a particularly interesting story of how dogs were used by the military when it came time to fight-back. And finally there’s the story about how the people of Paris thought they could escape the infection by fleeing into the Catacombs (three guesses how that turned out for them).

Tl;dr It’s a great book and the most realistic zombie story I’ve ever come across. Read it if you haven’t yet. And if you have, let me know in the comments which your favourite stories were.

Book Review: Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death by Kurt Vonnegut

No spoilers.

“All of this happened, more or less.” Oh, how wonderful it is to finally understand why this opening line is so famous!

Slaughterhouse FiveThe book is framed (first chapter and last chapter) by an apparently semi-autobiographical account of how the author came to write his famous anti-war story. This meta technique surprised me, as I didn’t realise ‘postmodernism’ was quite so old. Then I got to thinking about how calling anything ‘modern’ is so obviously screwing yourself over in the future that it doesn’t make any sense and while pondering the supreme ridiculousness of it all I got distracted from writing this very review. So it goes.

(Okay, I willing to bet that almost every review of Slaughterhouse-Five on the internet uses the term “so it goes” semi-ironically at some point, and I’ve already done the exact same thing, so I’ll try to avoid doing so again but can’t make any promises. It’s already proved far too tempting.)

I was slightly taken-aback by the first few chapters, because I was confused at how such a seemingly silly story had come to be considered a modern classic. Not that I wasn’t enjoying it, you understand, it’s just that ‘quirkiness’ isn’t a trait one would usually ascribe to a ‘classic’ novel. As it turns out, that’s the very genius of the book. The realisation gradually creeps up on you without you even noticing; Slaughterhouse-Five highlights the horrors of war by juxtaposing it with its irreverent tone and satirical story.

I remember joking with a friend that “so it goes” is written more times in the first chapter of the book than “old sport” is written in entirety of The Great Gatsby. It wasn’t long afterwards that I clocked onto the fact “so it goes” was written after every mention of death or mortality in the novel. (Every. Single. Mention.) And “so it goes” is a phrase which concisely sums up the entire book. The humour and eccentricity of the term initially masks the fact that Billy is disturbingly detached from the horrors of war.

I realise I’m not writing anything particularly insightful here. My enjoyment of the most famous (and frankly, the most-obvious) aspects of the book probably read like a half-assed secondary school English essay, but hey, I liked what I liked.

I think you can ascertain how good any book is by its impact on your everyday life. Personally, I’m sure that for the rest of my life, when I’m casually browsing the sci-fi section of a bookshop, I’ll be keeping a half-hopeful eye out for a Kilgore Trout novel.

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