Last week on holiday I read The Power — Naomi Alderman’s award winning science fiction novel — and I still feel it tingling in my finger tips. It’s a shocking book. The central premise is that women suddenly develop the physical advantage over men and that our world order is turned on its head. And I keep wondering: is it that simple? Is the patriarchy, religious and secular, born out of strength? Is domination fundamentally linked to the ability to inflict pain and take pleasure at will?
Margaret Atwood was the author’s mentor on the book and many have compared it to The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s a neat comparison but where Atwood’s dystopia on female subjugation is powerfully written from the claustrophobic and singular view of a handmaid, The Power is a wide ranging thriller exploring the religious and political impact of this change from many angles, across many countries. As with many high concept novels, it has the occasional weakness of the idea driving the story rather than the characters; some of the strands are more convincing than others. The bulk of the book follows four disparate characters — three female and one male — over ten years from the Cataclysm, the moment that young women were awakened to an electrical power emanating from a skein beneath their collar bones and start learning how to control it. There is Roxy, an English girl born into a criminal family; a US Mayor called Margot; Allie, a runaway teenager brutalised by the Christian family who adopted her and a Nigerian photo journalist called Tunde. The four stories weave around each other until a page turning crescendo in the former Moldavia. As the plot is fuelled by suspense and terror I’m not going to reveal any more of the story, but it’s a book that has vision and resonance; it makes you think.
The idea of females becoming the dominant sex has been explored before in feminist SF literature — particularly in the 1970s — but Naomi Alderman really inhabited the concept; she gulped it down and couldn’t stop until she was filled with it. It fanned out before her eyes and ranged over religion, anthropology, archaeology, science, politics, psychology and history. It’s impossible not to be impressed by the sheer ambition of The Power. By the end of the book, you realise that the author wants the reader to imagine that it’s being written in a time when the previous five thousand years are framed in a matriarchal perspective; illustrated by drawings from archaeological digs that are scattered throughout the narrative. Men are the weaker sex and being a woman is about “strength and not feeling fear or pain” (p337). The story starts and ends with a correspondence between an academic called Neil to his friend and writing mentor, Naomi. His career is a re-assessment of the way history has been written by women and argues that there was once a time when men were ascendant. He asks her to read over a radical manuscript concerning the Cataclysm and what happened, arguing against the dominant evolutionary psychology that men are naturally more “peaceful and nurturing than women…” (p334). The Power changes history and our place in it. She’s re-written it.
As someone who reads a lot about previous centuries and spends my days imagining living in former periods of history, when I return to my 21st century home I am often thankful that I live when I do. I occasionally burst into the kitchen and lecture my daughters on how lucky we are to be born in a time and place where we can work and vote and have our own money and choose when to get pregnant. And yet, casual sexism still exists everywhere, in the depictions of women as merely pretty, scared or grateful in films; in the derogatory comments by the google employee about female programmers; in the pay gap between the sexes that rewards a presumed superiority. And in other parts of the world, women are still brutally subjugated through religion or patriarchal cultures; babies are still aborted for being female and women are raped as war bounty or casual sport. The Power wrecks revenge on all of them and then goes further. In Saudi Arabia they blow up cars, sparking riots and regime change across the middle east, and women in Eastern Europe who’ve been trafficked for sex destroy the authorities that allowed the men to violate them. Women start to rape men because they can. Perhaps it’s this element of revenge in this violent and gripping book that I found quite so exhilarating and uncomfortable, as though it might awaken my own skein. Because in the end, Power corrupts and we should rise above the concept of strength.
The Power won the Bailey’s Women’s prize for fiction this year and I recommend its alternative view of our history. It’s often uncomfortable and occasionally unbelievable but as with the best science fiction, it shines a light on our current world and gets a conversation going about where gender difference came from and what it actually is.
The Power by Naomi Alderman is out in paperback (Penguin, 2017)