Suddenly - tomorrow or the day after - teenage girls find that with a flick of their fingers, they can inflict agonizing pain and even death. With this single twist, the four lives at the heart of Naomi Alderman's extraordinary, visceral novel are utterly transformed.
The frame narrative in which a man amusingly (to his indulgent female betters) reconstructs a forgotten world in which men had power over women doesn’t make sense, because the core story includes realistic details that the frame narrative insists are lost to history. And the ways in which women quickly reverse all our current stereotypes and atrocities to inflict them on men didn’t work for me. The twentieth century is replete with evidence that discrimination, and even genocide, can arise quickly, so I can’t say it wasn’t plausible in some sense, but this version didn’t feel inventive enough to be worth the effort. Women immediately switching to rape as part of warfare, sexually harassing men in the workforce, deciding that they were more intelligent than men, denying men the right to drive, requiring all men to have female guardians (because they’re so dangerous on their own), even ultimately engaging in male genital mutilation so that only electric stimulation could get them hard and orgasm was often painful; men starting to simper and pretend to be dumb to curry favor with women—all this seemed to lack imagination.
More broadly, I have deep reservations about the implicit argument that, if women could easily kill men, the current social category “men” would turn into the current (or even more retrograde) social category “women.” First, there’s the question of ideology: so far, patriarchy has been relatively successful at revaluing male as good and female as bad no matter what—see, e.g., the treatment of doctors (a heavily female profession in Russia, heavily male traditionally in the US). The counterargument can’t lightly be set aside: the book shows a political candidate who loses her temper and nearly shocks her male opponent when he says something nasty to her, and it’s that very display of nearly unchecked power, and willingness to use it, that wins her the election even though people say they disapprove. After 2016 I can’t say for sure that voters would react otherwise, but I also think there’s an existing narrative of female unreliability/emotionality that would work against such a switch. After all, it’s not like Trump actually was stronger than Clinton—he’s an unhealthy coward. I have trouble believing that women would become the class to whom that kind of power was attributed and for whom that kind of willingness to harm was valued in a few years. But even after that, the implicit argument of the book is that systematic oppression grows out of the physical power disparity of men and women, to which I respond: chattel slavery was imposed on people who were often physically more powerful than their enslavers. There were indeed revolts, some of them successful, but slavery also persisted where enslavers were able to keep enslaved people divided, to threaten them with massive retaliation if they exercised their physical power against enslavers, and to hold hostages for good behavior. With a preexisting ideology supporting patriarchy and preexisting divisions among women (not least race-based), I am dubious that the switch the book describes would happen. I presume the thought is, well, that’s why the Cataclysm occurred—there was enough of a backlash to create global war sufficiently destructive to leave almost no intact artifacts or even information behind. But even if that’s the worldbuilding answer, by only featuring characters who accept that the polarities of gender have been reversed, Alderman creates the impression of unity in reaction (even if a lot of the men are mad about the change, they all accept that it has happened).
The characters are also mostly—well, I can also no longer say that cartoon villainy is implausible; 2017’s storyline is proof of that. But that doesn’t mean that it’s fun to read about, or what I go to f/sf to get. Still, I have to admit that even though I’ve tried to unlearn a lot of gendered codes I was discomfited by the supplicating tone in which the man in the frame story wrote his female mentor—and I likely wouldn’t have been as sensitized to the same note written by a young woman to her male mentor.
Let's be clear: this is speculative fiction that looks toward the near future and is drawn straight from today's very real gender dynamics. In the book, teenage girls and women manifest the power to produce electricity in their bodies sufficient to electrocute -- you might imagine that such power turns society on its head, and it is that upheaval that the novel follows. It's also set up a book-within-a-book, with far future citizens looking back at what would be our near future and arguing amongst themselves about what's true in their history. That very set up creates enough distance to make even the more violent scenarios of the internal story fascinating in context.
A friend of mine told me that there are two camps of people who read this book: those who think it should be viewed purely as a meditation on the absolute corruption of power (which, on many levels, it definitely is) and those who finish the book with the phrase "Burn it all down" on their lips. I leave you to decide which camp you are in, but I'm telling you that you need to read this book. The very last line of the very last far-future letter puts the entire novel in perspective -- when you read it, it will hit you. Amazing. Seriously.
The story of how this power changes the world is told mainly through four points of view: Allie, who becomes the head of a new religion emphasising God’s female nature by transforming herself into Mother Eve; a London gangster’s daughter called Roxy; Margot Cleary, a US city mayor eager for further political advancement and Tunde who, initially by accident, becomes the journalistic chronicler of events.
There is, of course, a backlash to the new reality, both in the political sphere and in the darker (and perhaps not so hidden) recesses of the internet. One conspiracy theorist called UrbanDox believes that Guardian Angel was leaked deliberately just to do men down.
Yet Alderman’s is no simplistic account. Biblical cadences emphasise the mythical nature of the origins of her future society. Her characters are by and large agreeably nuanced, their actions not entirely predictable but still credible. Roxy is wonderfully realised but I wasn’t entirely convinced by Alderman’s US ones, and wondered whether Saudi Arabian women would throw off sexual inhibitions quite so quickly as one does here. But I suppose in the heady throes of a revolution anything might go and Alderman’s tale implicitly argues that human nature is indivisible, characteristics and behaviours shown by any one individual may or may not be shown by others, irrespective of their sex.
Where I have major reservations is with the framing device, a series of letters supposedly sent five thousand years hence between “Neil” and “Naomi” wrapped around the contents of a manuscript whose title page reads The Power: a historical novel by Neil Adam Armon (the anagram is easily deciphered) and which purports to be an imaginative, speculative, account of how the power originated and precipitated what became known as the Cataclysm. These letters stand on their heads widely held beliefs (in our present) about the proclivities and habits of, and attitudes to, men and women. Alderman’s point in a nutshell, but perhaps a little too heavy-handed. Between each section of the book (which count down from the power’s first appearance to the Cataclysm) are illustrations of little understood artefacts from around the time described in the manuscript. The interpolation into the manuscript of seemingly intact “Archival documents relating to the electrostatic power, its origin, dispersal, and the possibility of a cure” also strains credibility. How could they have survived more or less intact, remaining understandable, when the illustrated artefacts did not? Moreover the manuscript itself is too close to present day speech patterns – especially in the character of Roxy – to make the framing device believable. A five thousand year hence Neil Adam Armon would have got so much of our present wrong that he actually gets right. From this point of view it might have been better just to present the story as speculation rather than an imagined history from the future. This is a very purist position, of course, which argues for every detail of the overall book to be true to its own reality as presented to the reader - and very difficult to bring off. And anyway, SF is always about the present, never the future (or in this case the manuscript’s distant past.) I also doubt whether the inhabitants of such a world would in fact call the historical break a cataclysm but all this is mere quibbling. Though its interpretation of human nature, power and how it is implemented is bleak, The Power is engrossing, well written and with a lot to say about relationships between the sexes.
I bought it as a bit of a punt while on a post-payday spree at the flagship branch of Waterstone’s, succumbing as all too often to the enthusiastic suggestion of one of the engaging and knowledgeable staff who seem to abound there. I have occasionally had my fingers burnt and sworn never to listen to them again … until the next time. Well, the woman who recommended this book definitely deserves any commission she might have received from my purchase.
It seems to cross several different genres, excelling in each of them. While reading it I was considering how I might describe it, and found myself wavering between dystopian literature, science fiction, political observation, satire and straightforward thriller. Well, they will do for a start, though there are also moments of wry humour and quasi-religious bliss.
It also classifies as meta-fiction, with the bulk of the book taking the form of a manuscript of anthropological research into the events that culminated in a devastating, world-eclipsing apocalypse, sandwiched by brief correspondence from the supposed researcher and his editor. Their closing exchanges form the crowning glory of an already marvellous novel.
The story revolves around the discovery that, when finding themselves placed under sudden stress, some girls and young women can generate and apply a devastating electrostatic charge. This becomes known as ‘the power’. Having once unleashed the power, young women find that they are also able to release it in older women. All at once, around the world girls find that they can not only protect themselves from physical assault, but can use their charge as an offensive weapon, too.
Alderman describes masterfully the way in which the phenomenon spreads around the world and how different cultures respond. The story focuses on four characters: Allie, who unleashes the power to enable herself to escape from her abusive adoptive parents; Margot, mayor of a northern city in the USA who is ambitious to progress further up the political ladder, though that aspiration is challenged by the sudden awakening of the power in her elder daughter; Roxy, daughter of an East End villain who yearns to avenge the murder of her ‘gangster’s moll’ mother; and Tunde, a Nigerian student who captures mobile phone footage of some early incidents of the unleashing of the power, and launches a successful career as an international journalist as a consequence. The novel unwinds with interpolated narratives following each of these characters, with a few others thrown in, as the story counts down towards an unspecified event.
I don’t want to say much more about the content for fear of inadvertently offering spoliers. Alderman manages the separate threads very capably, interspersing them with facsimile archeolgical notes and addenda, all of which lend a deep patina of verisimilitude. Any dystopian literature, particularly if there is an essentially feminist theme, will automatically draw comparisons with Margaret Atwood. In this case those worthy plaudits are entirely justified. This is, quite simply, an amazing, imaginative and haunting novel.
Women gain powers and use them to control, bully, maim, kill men. Hello dystopia, my old friend.
I found it hard to connect with the characters. The strongest passages were when she was writing about how Tunde felt in his new position as vulnerable, hunted male. It illustrated how women can feel just walking past a group of threatening or more powerful men and how they change their behaviour/posture.
And also to remind myself that good books are great even though I expect them to be better. I just have to remember how bad the crappy ones are.
The story follows the lives of just a handful of people in this new world: a young woman in Britain from a crime family, a young mixed-race woman in America who has been in the foster system most of her life, the mayor of a major city whose daughter shares her power with her, and a Nigerian reporter (the only male POV in the story) who travels the world documenting the political changes as they happen.
The first half of the book is incredibly empowering to read as a woman. The women in this book no longer have to be afraid to walk alone at night. They can seek their own retribution. It kicks ass. Come the second half of the book, though, things take a turn for the worse. Our main characters suffer some defeats, and the world itself becomes more and more dystopic. (Of course, since the author basically just gender flipped everything, to call a world in which women are in charge and men are subjugated a dystopia, means that we also have to recognize that the real world we live in where women are subjugated, is also a dystopia. Food for thought there, for sure.)
Overall, I really enjoyed the book. Some characters took some time to grow on me, and most of them surprised me in their own ways. I wish the author had included more diverse perspectives. What happens to trans people in this world? What about black women in America? Or anywhere else? What of people in Asia? There is so much more room for other stories within this world and I wish the author had taken that opportunity. Nonetheless, I think this book will appeal to readers of science fiction and feminist stories.
In the near future, in a very recognizable world, girls and then women, discover a hidden “power” that gives them the ability to shock and if desired...kill, notably abusive men. Yep, the tables have turned and this makes for a timely read, but power also corrupts, so not all is rosy.
Told in alternating chapters, from different character viewpoints, the novel unfolds, in funny and biting ways. It is not as deep and introspective as The Handmaid's Tale but the author still offers plenty to chew on. I am not going to divulge anymore of the various plot-lines but I was highly entertained and give it a strong recommendation.
*This is also a terrific audiobook, if you want to go that route.
I'm not entirely sure how things got from the framing story from the current pieces but it pulled me in and kept me reading and I really did enjoy the ride and could see how it really did reflect reality.
The most powerful moment is definitely in the 'present day's correspondence that bookends the main story, but I really enjoyed the main story too. I liked that there were perspectives from both men and women, although I would maybe liked to have seen more from the point of view of a woman not in agreement with the way things pan out.
I'll definitely look up Naomi Alderman's other works after reading this!
This is not a YA book due to scenes of brutal sexual violence.
It is not a new or novel idea but there is nothing wrong with that. There is a lot to like in the book but it is too muddled in may of its themes and looses too much momentum in the middle and never quite recovers. Shame really.
Maybe if these ideas are new to you then perhaps it would have more impact. However, I do think that Naomi has a much better book in there waiting to come out.