Writing in 2008 for Wired Magazine, Clive Thompson makes the following assertion about the status of science fiction (interchangeably referred to as ‘SF’ in this essay) in the contemporary literary milieu: “if you want to read books that tackle profound philosophical questions, then the best — and perhaps only — place to turn these days is sci-fi. Science fiction is the last great literature of ideas.” This statement is not without antecedent. Similar claims which identify SF as an ideas-driven, thought-provoking genre have been made by academic and plebeian critics alike over the past century. Using Thompson’s statement as a point of departure, this essay will interrogate the genre’s credentials as a literature of ideas via an analysis of Michel Faber’s SF novel Under the Skin. It will be argued that Faber’s novel is an example of a text which innovatively uses the conventions of science fiction to address ontological anxieties surrounding the formation and maintenance of identity. Of particular interest will be the ways in which the novel deals with the sociocultural issues of class and gender through its protagonist Isserley. This essay will demonstrate that Faber’s novel, although relatively short, stands as an exemplar of the way in which science fiction, as a genre, succeeds in creating a literary space which facilitates the exploration of ideas, on both a personal and societal level. 

It was not until the 1970s that SF criticism became widely accepted as a course of academic study, and it was during this period that some of the seminal works in science fiction scholarship were produced. Arguably the most influential study of the genre was conducted at this time by Neo-Marxist critic Darko Suvin, who posited the thesis that science fiction is a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment. Clive Thompson’s article in Wired essentially paraphrases Suvin when he states that authors of SF “rewrite one or two basic rules about society and then examine how humanity responds — so we can learn more about ourselves.” Suvin coined the term “cognitive estrangement” to describe this narrative technique and David Seed succinctly summarises the concept and its purported effect in the following statement: “science fiction estranges the reader from the familiar world and produces striking new perspectives as a result.” While it is fair to say that SF, even in the period before it gained academic acceptance, was a literary genre associated with ideas (being immediately and indelibly associated with technology, space-travel, and the ‘science’ from which it took its name) the early theoretical work conducted by Suvin and others made significant strides towards defining a poetics of SF which clearly articulated the ways in which the genre interacts with ideas and, perhaps more significantly, with ideology. 

If science fiction is the literature of ideas then cognitive estrangement is perhaps the genre’s most important generative tenet, as it is through this style of narrative, and the process of alienation (in the Brechtian sense) it prompts in the reader, that the ideas contained in SF texts fully reveal themselves. The most innovative works of science fiction do not indulge in escapism for its own sake, instead they distance the reader from their immediate cultural surroundings in order to open up a space for critical thought, where non-hegemonic discourses can emerge. In other words, they have the effect of inducing a perspective of critical displacement from the distorted ideological perception of social reality. Michel Faber’s Under the Skin is a novel which deploys the techniques of cognitive estrangement in order to engage with complex sociocultural ideas, in ways which, despite protests from its author, distinctly mark it as a work of science fiction. 

Under the Skin is set in a coastal area of the Scottish highlands and details a short period of time in the life of Isserley, an alien woman who has been surgically altered to resemble a female from Earth in order to fulfil an important but menial corporate job. She lives on what is ostensibly a typical Scottish farm, but in reality these farmlands serve as a processing and exporting plant for “voddissin,” an alien delicacy made from the flesh of humans. Notably, the alien race that Isserley is a member of are referred to in the text as “human beings,” and they refer to the people of Earth as “vodsels.” Isserley’s job, which effectively amounts to a form of bonded labour, involves driving the roads of the surrounding areas in order to pick up and sedate male vodsels who are then brought back to the farm to be processed. Even from this brief description of the plot it is apparent that there are a number of complex sociocultural issues at stake in Faber’s novel, and that these issues revolve around Isserley; a protagonist who exists somewhere on the border of human and alien, possessing some of the language of both, and who occupies a marginal position in society because of her class and gender. The narrative impetus of Under the Skin centres on the fractured sense of self which Isserley feels as a result of her sexual and economic marginalisation, an identity crisis which is further complicated as a result of her transspeciated status. 

Helen Merrick, writing about gender representation in early science fiction, proffers that aliens were often used to “signify everything that was ‘other’ to the dominant audience of middle-class, young white Western males – including women, people of colour, other nationalities, classes and sexualities.” Faber’s use of aliens in Under the Skin is much more nuanced than this and Isserley is far too complex a character to be conflated with the ciphers of earlier SF texts, who existed purely to stand in binary opposition to a hegemonic norm. However, while we can no longer presume a ‘dominant’ white/male/middle-class audience for science fiction literature, Isserley can still be identified as ‘Other’ within a hegemonic social paradigm; she is female, a member of the underclass (although not at the very lowest rung of the social order), and, tied to an unfulfilling job for which she has been surgically mutilated, possesses very little social autonomy. Her physical alteration is significant, as this renders her finally and irredeemably Other; her marginalisation extending beyond social constructions of class and gender to her very physiognomy. By positioning Isserley as the central character of his novel, Faber places the experience of the Other at the foreground of the text, denying the reader the stability of a ‘safe’ or ‘familiar’ subject position, and in so doing, initiating cognitive estrangement. Not only have the Scottish highlands been transformed into the locus of a macabre alien project which undermines the position of human beings at the top of the food chain, but the reader’s access to this now-foreign landscape is granted via an alien Other in the midst of an existential crisis. Sarah Dillon, in a paper which looks at human/non-human animal relations in the novel, identifies this perspective as “the source of much of the social satire of contemporary culture evident in the novel,” a statement with which I concur. This is not the Scotland with which most readers are at least tangentially familiar, but, despite the use of a ‘foreign’ perspective, the culture presented in Under the Skin remains recognisably ‘human’, allowing us to identify and engage in the critique of societal attitudes towards class and gender which runs through the text.

It is apparent from the early stages of Faber’s novel that the narrative will engage with discursively constructed social inequalities, and how these can result in anxieties which impact on identity formation. Isserley is a character who is forced to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances both physical and societal, and as a result she struggles to retain a sense of self. During her time on Earth, Isserley clings to the notion of a monolithic identity based on the difference between her ‘human’ species, and the vodsel species which populates her adopted home. No longer subject to the rules which governed society on her home planet, class and gender lines are temporarily flattened in favour of defining identity along lines of species. Her human self is defined by the vodsel Other, whose brutal farming she is involved in and whose subjectivity she repeatedly denies in order to insulate herself from their suffering. As Dillon posits, “a conviction of her difference from them is all that enables her to remain impervious to the plight of the vodsels she captures. Such is Isserley’s psychological determination in this respect that it leads to a virtually pathological inability to recognize their suffering.” Isserley stresses this difference throughout the text, as if desperately trying to reinforce it in order to maintain her identity and justify her treatment of the vodsels. Her physical similarity to the species she actively subjugates undermines this effort however, and she struggles to reconcile the inner conflict this causes with the sense of self she has cultivated since coming to Earth. When asked by Amlis Vess, a member of the elite from her home planet, to translate some vodsel writing from the floor of the enclosure pens, Isserley is confronted with her liminal status and struggles to contain her emotions. Nearing tears, she refutes any common ground she may share with the vodsels, stating “I’m a human being, not a vodsel.” As Dillon observes, “Isserley needs to define herself by what she is not, but the attempt to do so is constantly challenged by the surgical modifications made to her body, which cause her to inhabit physically the limit between human and vodsel.” The strain placed on Isserley’s psyche by her physical transformation is most clearly articulated before her first meeting with Amlis Vess, in her fear of his first reaction to her ‘freakish’ appearance: “He’d be expecting to see a human being, and he would see a hideous animal instead. It was that moment […] of the sickening opposite of recognition that she just couldn’t cope with.” In these lines there is a suggestion that Isserley understands that defining her identity through physical difference is no longer tenable, while at the same time acknowledging the mental anguish that this causes her. 

The minutiae of Isserley’s surgical transformation are also significant because they can be read as a commentary on the standards imposed on female beauty by Earth’s media, and the mass cultural objectification of women in general. The perception of Isserley’s physical alteration, from what Faber himself describes as a “cross between a cat, a dog, and a llama” to a human woman, combined with Isserley’s own observations on how the female body is portrayed in the media, provide insight into how woman are represented and viewed in human culture. Here, again, is an example of cognitive estrangement, in that the reader is literally presented with an alien perspective on aspects of the media so commonplace that they might otherwise escape notice or critique. The purpose of such an argument is not to credit Faber with a striking new take on the politics of gender representation, rather, it simply serves to highlight the ways in which the text encourages a critical engagement with this aspect of human society. 

In a particularly revealing moment, the reader is informed that the surgeons who performed Isserley’s transformation modelled her new body on pictures from a magazine which were sent to them from Earth. The resultant body is a distorted caricature of female anatomy, with significant attention seemingly being given to the construction of exaggeratedly large breasts. It is difficult to read the descriptions of Isserley’s breasts in the text – referred to at one point as “puffy” and “artificial,” and at another as “alien mounds” – as anything other than an indictment of a culture which engenders insecurities around female body image, and in which cosmetic surgery is becoming increasingly commonplace. Faber has acknowledged that this was an issue which preoccupied him during the writing of the novel, admitting to one interviewer that he was “thinking a lot about plastic surgery and the whole idea of women voluntarily allowing themselves to be carved up and reshaped to a cast master, as if their selves, as they were, weren't good enough.” Anxieties around body image are amplified through Isserley, whose new body represents a drastic external reshaping which she finds increasingly difficult to reconcile with her inner sense of self. She demonstrates a particularly strong antipathy towards her new breasts throughout the text, as these seem to be one of the more obvious and inescapable markers of her alterity. The strain this causes to her psyche is clearly articulated in a bathing scene late in the novel, when looking down at her artificial breasts she is described “easily imagining them as something other than they were. Marooned like this in the sunlit water, they reminded her of rocks in the ocean, revealed by the tide. Stones on her chest, pushing her down.” Isserley’s view as an outsider in human society is also useful in highlighting how unlike reality the template used by the surgeons has proven to be, as she notes how “never, in all her far-ranging travels […] had she seen a female vodsel with breasts like the ones in the magazine.” This underlines the implication that the female body-type which is predominantly promoted in the media bears little resemblance to reality, a point which Isserley makes explicit in her observation that “real life wasn’t at all like the smooth images celebrated by magazines and television.”

Early in the novel Isserley is described in one hitch-hiker’s internal monologue as “half Baywatch babe, half little old lady,” an account which is indicative of both the difficulty of transforming her species into humanoid form, and the standards which were used in the creation of her new body. Her face is described as: “small and heart-shaped, like an elf in a kiddie’s book, with a perfect little nose and a fantastic big-lipped curvy mouth like a supermodel.” The mention of her ‘supermodel-like’ mouth is not insignificant as this again draws attention to the types of women, and moreover the particular physical attributes, that are held up as the ideal standard in the media, and against which all women are compared. It is significant, also, that Isserley’s lips are described as “red as lipstick,” as opposed to “red with lipstick.” This indicates that a decision was made during the surgery that her lips should be permanently pigmented to an unnatural hue which approximates a shade that could otherwise only be achieved cosmetically. While it is fair to say that an alien race using photographs from certain magazines could easily make the mistake of thinking that all women on Earth have lips of this colour, this detail can nonetheless be read as further evidence of the sustained critique of mediated images of the female body which runs through Under the Skin. Furthermore, by removing the step of actually having to apply make-up, Isserley has been stripped of a measure of autonomy she might otherwise exercise over her appearance, ensuring that she remains at all times in anticipation of an objectifying (male) gaze. 

Under the Skin is very self-aware in its engagement with ideas around the surveillance of bodies, and particularly the notion of the ‘male gaze’, a term coined by Laura Mulvey in an influential critique of Hollywood film to describe the cinema’s apparent obsession with framing female bodies “for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.” Large sections of the novel are dedicated to the time Isserley spends driving around with male hitch-hikers, and it is during these meetings that the reader is informed in detail of the methods Isserley uses to capture vodsels. There are eleven such encounters in the novel, and in all but one of these episodes the hitcher makes reference to her breasts, either internally or in conversation. It is made apparent that wearing clothing which exposes her cleavage is a part of Isserley’s modus operandi, and in a description which serves as an early indication of the novel’s willingness to engage with the politics of ‘looking,’ the reader is informed in one of these episodes that she “craned forward a little […] and allowed herself to be examined in earnest.” Regardless of whether or not Faber is intentionally commenting on the idea of the male gaze in his narrative, the next line appears to make the connection inevitable, as we are told of how “immediately she felt his gaze beaming all over her like another kind of ultraviolet ray, and no less intense.” Isserley is very conscious of how her body is constantly under observation for varying reasons, either from male vodsels or men from her own planet, and appears wearied by it. A recurring motif in the novel is Isserley’s desire to escape from her current circumstances, and this is at least partly because the constant scrutiny she endures, as indicated in lines which describe how she longs for “somewhere more private, where no-one was subjecting her to surveillance or speculation.” It is not a stretch to suggest that Isserley’s anxieties in this regard might resonate with the lived experience of women in a culture in which the female body is subjected to surveillance on a grand scale. 

The novel’s opening also seems to indicate the text’s awareness and wilful engagement with ideas around the objectification of bodies, appearing to play with and actively subvert the idea of a dominant paradigm of active/male and passive/female viewers. The language used to describe Isserley’s visual assessment of male hitchers, while later revealed to be the vocabulary of livestock evaluation, at first appears to be sexually charged. As Dillon notes, “Isserley uses the language of assessment and objectification that is usually reserved, in our sexual politics, for men observing women,” highlighting the way Faber’s text draws attention to an unequal ‘hierarchy of looking’ by actively subverting it. Estranged from the hegemonic male gaze, the reader vicariously participates in Isserley’s apparent objectification of the male body in these passages, as demonstrated in lines which describe her gaze “following the curves of his brawny shoulders or the swell of his chest under his T-shirt, savouring the thought of how superb he’d be once he was naked.” When she picks up her first hitcher in the novel she is again described as “noting the ripples of muscle momentarily expressing themselves through his T-shirt,” adding soon afterwards that “the bulge in his jeans was promising.” Although it is later revealed that Isserley has no sexual interest in the hitch-hikers, these descriptions are nonetheless a deliberate challenge to the default setting of an active-male/passive-female viewership which many cultural texts assume, again demonstrating the novel’s willingness to engage in broader issues of gender politics. 

Isserley’s interactions with male characters in the novel, both those from earth and those from her home world, betray an ambivalence about her status as a woman in the society of either planet. Isserley’s conflicted emotional state is evident in one instance where she tries to assess her emotional state after a troubling exchange with a vodsel hitch-hiker who aggressively questions her on the subject of her surgically enhanced breasts. Tring to decide whether or not she was upset, Isserley concludes that “it was difficult to decide, because her own emotions hid from her. The inarticulate rage of Isserley’s youth is replaced in her adult life by an emotional evasiveness which produces effects bordering on depression. As described in the text, “she could glimpse her feelings, but only out of the corner of her eye, like distant headlights in a side mirror.” Her melancholia is apparent as we are told of “the way perfectly ordinary events could bring her down.” This emotional distress cannot simply be explained away as a result of her physical transformation, and Isserley seems cognisant of this, as we are told that “she suspected her feelings were getting swallowed up, undigested, inside purely physical symptoms. Her back-ache and eye-strain were sometimes much worse than usual, for no real reason; at these times, there was probably something else troubling her.” The unfocussed anger Isserley felt in her youth, and her inability to directly interact with her emotions as an adult, can be read as the damaging effect that societal marginalisation has had on her psyche at both stages of her life.

As the reader learns more about Isserley’s home world, an ecologically-ravaged, strictly class-divided planet, it becomes apparent that her arrested emotional development is connected to her status as both a woman and a member of the underclass. It is revealed that the lower classes on her planet, when they reach a certain age, are forced to live in an overcrowded, underground network known as the New Estates. Here, they are forced to work in water and oxygen plants in order to address an unspecified environmental catastrophe which has resulted in a severe lack of both of these essential resources in the natural environment. The naming of this area is significant as it connects the dystopian division of class on Isserley’s home planet with the working class housing-estates of Earth, encouraging the reader to draw parallels between the limited opportunities which are offered in both. This point is reinforced by the heavily accented dialogue of one of Isserley’s hitch-hikers who, after noting his boredom living in an estate, remarks that “jobs dinnae exist up here.” While there is a marked difference between the forced labour of Isserley’s home planet and unemployment in the highlands of Scotland, the implication for the subaltern class in each case is that they are denied social autonomy. There is a suggestion much later in the novel that, as a young woman, Isserley may have become romantically involved with members of the elite in an attempt to escape a life in the Estates. Ruefully she recalls “all the men who’d promised to keep her safe as she neared the grading age. […] Spoilt little poseurs, the lot of them.” Ultimately the promises of protection made to her by these men never materialise, and in a desperate attempt to avoid the Estates she accepts the assignment on Earth and the radical surgery which it entails. 

Class also plays a significant role in the selection of vodsels for the farming process. It becomes clear as the novel progresses that Isserley only chooses vodsels who she thinks will not be missed by the broader society, and more often than not this means preying on the unemployed. While other factors are taken into consideration, such as their marital/family status, she explicitly states at one point that “unemployed vodsels were always a good risk.” Once again, Isserley’s perspective as an outsider offers the reader a clarity which emerges primarily by virtue of the distance she feels from the society she observes. In an interesting contrast with her own treatment by the elite, Isserley can now be said to participate in a form of class discrimination herself. This is apparent in both her treatment of the vodsels and also the men of her own species who work at the farm. It is revealed that Isserley was sent to the Estates for just three days before being offered her job on Earth, and as a result she feels a sense of superiority in relation to the men who work on the farm. She refers to these men as “estate trash,” and maintains a considerable distance from them in both her personal and professional life. While this is partly as a result of her desire to escape the surveillance which is a constant reminder of her difference, it is also evident that Isserley has internalised the classed prejudice she herself has been a victim of, and is now reproducing some form of it. It is difficult, however, to divorce her relationship with her co-workers from her status as the only woman of their species on the farm. In a moment which seems to indicate that gender difference ultimately trumps class difference in their society, the male workers side with Amlis Vess when he challenges Isserley on the ethics of her role in the production of voddissin. ‘Estate trash’ and ‘elite’ standing together in opposition to her, the reader is told how this moment “reminded her of all her other differences from the men who stood in a semicircle before her.” 

As demonstrated, Michael Faber’s Under the Skin is undeniably a novel which follows in the tradition of science fiction as a literature of cognitive estrangement. By presenting the reader with a view of the highlands of Scotland through the lens of an alien outsider, Faber’s text encourages a critical engagement with complex sociocultural ideas around class, gender, and identity itself. Under the Skin achieves this feat by forcing the reader to adopt the position of the Other, and in so doing to question the hegemonic subject position that is often presented in cultural texts. Due to her status as an alien, and the perspective it brings, Isserley’s travails on Earth as a working-class woman, highlight socially constructed inequalities along lines of class and gender which can have an impact on identity formation. The text confronts these complex issues with a directness which may not be achievable in the genre of literary realism, further demonstrating the validity of science fiction’s reputation as the “last great literature of ideas.” 


Patrick Rogers holds a Bachelor's Degree in English, Media and Cultural Studies from IADT Dun Laoghaire and a M.Phil in Popular Literature from Trinity College Dublin. He is currently travelling South East Asia while working on a PhD Submission concerning Media Concentration and Bias in the Republic of Ireland.


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