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Under the Skin – Book Review

I watched the 2013 film Under the Skin starring a plump Scarlett Johansson. I mention plump because she takes her clothes off multiple times in the film. There is a plot device here, but because the film is impenetrable, it does seem to devolve into a device for getting Johansson's clothes off. Not really my thing, so I found myself fast forwarding a lot when watching this film (it is a bit slow and repetitive throughout). Certain elements are visually somewhat interesting but so underdetermined that they make little sense.

This is not at all the same for the novel on which the screenplay is quite loosely based. Under the Skin by Michael Faber is a bit divisive when it comes to the Amazon.com reviews (40% 5 star, 18% 1 and 2 star). Overwhelmingly positive, but definitely not everyone's cup of tea. I fall in with the five star crowd. I found the story riviting, and a bit terrifying.

I generally dislike and avoid horror and those books/films which are a bit too suspenseful, but this novel was so compelling that I eagerly -- well, at least willingly -- subjected myself to what is really sci-fi horror. The horror part comes from what is being done to the humans, and what was done to the aliens in order to get access to the humans.

Needless to say, Scarlett Johansson is nowhere close to what the author was envisioning when writing his book. In the film, at the end the alien sluffs off the Scarlett Johansson skin. In the book, the ordeal the alien went through and continues to go through to masquarade as a human being (constant pain, the inability to sleep well or much, etc.). But even saying this is not right, for in the book, the aliens are the human beings and human beings as we know them are vodsels.

The thing about vodsels was, people who knew nothing whatsoever about them were apt to misunderstand them terribly. There was always the tendency to anthropomorphize. A vodsel might do something which resembled a human action; it might make a sound analogous with human distress, or make a gesture analogous with human supplication, and that made the ignorant observer jump to conclusions.

In the end, though, vodsels couldn't do any of the things that really defined a human being. They couldn't siuwil, they couldn't mesnishtil, they had no concept of slan. In their brutishness, they'd never evolved to use hunshur; their communities were so rudimentary that hississins did not exist; nor did these creatures seem to see any need for chail, or even chailsinn.

These things that vodsels couldn't do are of course never defined or explained, because the readers are of course, vodsels.

The explanatory extract above is not typical of the novel and comes halfway through the work. Let's just say that it is a revelation long awaited, as is the description of the aliens themselves. Faber keeps that neatly under wraps until a proper moment. Using the first person account from the alien's perspective allows many strange things to remain in the background since they are already known by the protagonist, until they are brought forward by an event or a recollection.

In the end, the book is a tragedy (how could it be any different) for the human beings, as well as the vodsels.

  • Excellent - 5/5 stars
  • Genre: Science Fiction
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