Under the

Michael Faber

Isserley drives around the highways of Scotland, not far from Loch Ness, picking up hitchhikers. If they have nice muscles and few real world attachments, she has a button that will stab them in the ass and inject a potion to knock them out so she can drive them back to "the farm" where they will be unloaded, de-tongued, castrated, then put in fattening pens. When they have reached their full pinkness, they are slaughtered and sent back to her planet as special delicacies for the upper-class.

Now, to take a story-line like that, and make it work, and make us want to turn the page, and not throw up, is going to take some doing. And author Michael Faber has what it takes: Under the Skin will get under your skin and, at the same time, probably make you give up hitchhiking forever. At least in Northern Scotland.

How does he do it? He sucks us in at the beginning with this all-too-human Isserley (huge breasts, huge eyes, tiny body) and of course, at the very beginning, we don't know she's from outer space --- we think she's just some hussy picking up these hunks to do some fiddling around in the car. We don't get to the strangeness of it until page 22, when she does the switch:

    It was the icpathua toggle, the trigger for the needles inside the passenger seat, to make them spring up silently from their little sheath-like burrows in the upholstery.

Kidnapping hunky young men ain't a piece of cake: it's not just picking up bods and instantly making meatpies out of them. She has to be sure there are few or no nearby relatives to call the fuzz when they disappear.

Furthermore, in the process of picking up these guys, she has to deal with the usual drunks, tall-tale-tellers, weirdos, sexists. The doctors in her far-off planet who did her remodeling job apparently blew it when they chopped off her tail, slimmed down her snout, and hid her claws. All those amputations hurt. They also chose mountainous, unreal boobs to bring in the studs. This leads to a certain by-play with those guys who can't stop ogling her:

    "Nice pair of tits you've got there," he said.

    "Thank you," she said. The atmosphere in the cabin instantly began to throb with agitated molecules.

    "They didn't grow overnight," he sniggered.

    "No they didn't," she agreed.

Then, as a dose of reality (if we can call it that):

    Her real teats, budding naturally from her abdomen, had been surgically removed in a separate operation from the one that had grafted these puffy artificial ones onto her chest. The surgeons had used pictures from a magazine sent by Esswis [her boss] as a guide.

    "Biggest I've seen for a long time," the hitcher added, evidently reluctant to leave off mining such a rich conversational seam.

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This is a jim-dandy seat-grabber (or seat-stabber) of a book, and part of the pleasure is getting into the heads of those who, after all, are running nothing more than an exotic meat-packing plant. The son of the owner of the operation, Amlis Vess, flies down for a look-see. Turns out he's a vegetarian and for Isserley, he's one of the most gorgeous creatures she has ever seen:

    Like all of Isserley's race...he stood naked on all fours, his limbs exactly equal in length, all of them equally nimble. He also had a prehensile tail, which, if he needed his front hands free, he could use as another limb to balance on, tripod-style. His breast tapered seamlessly into a long neck, on which his head was positioned like a trophy. It came to three points: his long spearhead ears and his vulpine snout. His large eyes were perfectly round, positioned on the front of his face, which was covered in soft fur, like the rest of his body. In all these things he was a normal, standard-issue human being....

A worthy writer will suspend our disbelief through detail --- in this case, highly exotic detail. It works because of Faber's sense of timing: the needles and "icpathua" turn up on page 22; the introduction of the word for Earth humans ("vodsels") comes at page 50; her lunch --- "gushu" --- appears on page 60; and the exotic description of her people [above] on page 117.

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There are other touches to delight us vodsels: her rescuing a starving dog from one of the hitchhikers she has done in; her take on English television; her affection for her filthy car; and the choice of lunch at "Tum's® Roadside Diner:" Hot Dog, Chicken Roll, and Beef Burger:

    She'd heard the television say that Beef was dangerous --- potentially deadly, even. If it could kill vodsels, she didn't like to think what it might do to her. As for the Hot Dog, well...there was something bizarre about going to a lot of trouble to save a dog from death and then eating one a few days later.

--- I. W. Schwartz

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