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A science fiction novel I read, I believe, when I was a young teenager in the early 1990s, it featured some disturbing imagery (not as an identification note, but as a warning for users faint of heart). It began with an implacable and sudden invasion of earth by large alien ships. Humanity was herded aboard, many slaughtered for meat or flayed alive as others looked on.

The narrative follows one woman who was initially flayed like the others, but then was spared somehow. The initial events are quite blurry in my memory, but I think confusion, bewilderment, and shock at the invasion and the events inflicted upon her was embedded in the narrative and not just my faulty memory. By the time clarity returned to the prose her new "owner" somehow had her surgically restored with a new skin and was keeping her as a pet. The rest of the (substantial, as I recall) novel was her perspective on this strange culture she was thrust into the midst of, the plight of humanity, and her struggles to figure out how to cope, maintain her identity with an unfamiliar face and disempowered life, and what to do about the whole situation. She may have participated in an emancipation effort in the rising action of the novel, but I really don't remember how the story developed after the initial events.

I recall it being a 'serious' sci-fi novel – the prose was dense, the ideas mature and of grey morality, and written at what seemed to me a fairly high reading level – and I still associate it with Le Guin's The Dispossessed for those reasons though they're entirely unrelated, apart from having impenetrable prose (for a teenager) and themes of isolation in an alien culture.

It seemed to me even at the time that it was a fairly transparent allegory for humans' relationship to animals, though it went far beyond a simple morality tale. It was quite affecting and has been stuck in my head since, and I'd like to re-read this with an adult's perspective.

Edit: I tracked down a copy of Anne McCaffrey's Restoree as a likely answer. Having read it, the similarities are uncanny but it's not the book I'm looking for. The book I remember is different in these ways I recall:

  • The beginning is more explicit. Sara of Restoree doesn't discover the exact nature of her time aboard the ship or what happened to her fellow "passengers" until quite late in the narrative, while the book I remember front-loaded these details.
  • There was no romance subplot.
  • Her "keeper" was of the same species as her initial captors, lending tension and some Stockholm effect to her relationship to him, while the companion in Restoree is of a different and sympathetic species.
  • The aliens she finds herself among are pyschologically unfamiliar and hard to comprehend. She learns their language slowly if at all. In Restoree the aliens are indistinguishable from humans and she absorbs their language subconsciously after her rescue but while she's still in shock.
  • The themes were much more sociopolitical and the narrative mostly cerebral. Restoree is an enjoyable political-adventure romp.
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    The description reminds me somewhat of "The Heroic Myth of Lieutenant Nora Argamentine" from the Man-Kzin series, but the particulars differ too much for it to be that story. – Kyle Jones Jun 3 '12 at 7:45
  • @KyleJones Funny, I was just looking at Niven ebooks! I can say I've not yet read a Man-Kzin book, but thank you for piquing my curiosity. – SevenSidedDie Jun 3 '12 at 8:53
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    You've reminded me of this one, and now I also need to know. Additional details that I think I remember: her new skin was strange in some way, I think having a completely non-human colour or unnatural tone. Pretty sure I remember an escape attempt later. – Tynam Jun 3 '12 at 9:45
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    And @SevenSidedDie: "The Heroic Myth" is in Man-Kzin Wars book 6 - it pretty much is that book, it's such a long novella - but it's a bad starting point. It's a direct sequel to 'The Survivor' in book 4. Which is still not a good first Kzin story, because it's about a completely atypical kzin. (Also because it's the most utterly horrific thing ever written in that universe; it makes having your skin flayed off and replaced look nice.) They're both good stories though. Once the nightmares die down a little. – Tynam Jun 3 '12 at 10:12
  • @Tynam Those details do ring bells. And that's a very useful bit of intel on how not to approach that series… – SevenSidedDie Jun 3 '12 at 16:02
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I think you may find that the author is McCaffrey, but what you need is the Catteni or Freedom Series. The heroine is abducted by an alien race called the Catteni, but the real villains are the Eosi who have the Catteni in their thrall.

McCaffrey originally wrote a soft porn short story titled "The Thorns of Barevi" which featured in "Get Off the Unicorn" and several years later expanded it into a much more complex series starting with "Freedom's Landing"

Edit: But then again, maybe it isn't what you are looking for: checking your pointers there is definitely romance involved and there is less obvious brutality -- McCaffrey is probably incapable of writing the cold, brutal stuff you recall.

  • Having just reread Restoree for the first time in decades, perhaps it is the story you were remembering! McCaffrey seems to be better at implying the gruesome than I thought -- better than her handling of love relationships it would seem. – Greebo Aug 5 '12 at 9:46
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I think you may be quite surprised to learn that this is probably "Restoree" by Anne McCaffrey. Yes, it's quite different from the lighter fluffier stuff she wrote later, and is probably my favourite book of hers.

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    I would be, yes! The themes outlined in the Wikipedia entry don't match what I took from it then, but I can't be sure whether that's because there are two books with that exact story setup or whether I just couldn't comprehend the book when I read it. I'll check this one out and see if this is it. – SevenSidedDie Jun 4 '12 at 17:29
  • Reading it now. I don't think it's the same, though there are uncanny similarities. The beginning is insufficiently graphic and horrible; the aliens too human and comprehensible; and I'm pretty sure her "companion" alien was of the same species as the attackers and there was no romance plot thread. Possibly the book I'm thinking of was a literary "response" to Restoree? This might be the book that @Tynam remembers, though, as it does have an escape in an early chapter. – SevenSidedDie Jun 5 '12 at 19:03
  • I must admit that I didn't think Restoree was that complex, but the similarities to your description were striking. The trope is not entirely uncommon though. There's also an Orson Scott Card story about a human who stays intact by acting as the aliens' butcher, but that's even more different from what you describe. – Christi Jun 6 '12 at 12:14
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    I enjoyed Restoree though, and you've helped me learn that I do still enjoy McCaffrey as an adult. So thank you for that. :-) – SevenSidedDie Jun 7 '12 at 16:27
  • You're most welcome. – Christi Jun 7 '12 at 18:23

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