Andra Jenkin reviews The Power, a wildly successful feminist sci-fi novel which imagines a world where women are in control.
Naomi Alderman’s The Power is speculative fiction set in a future and based on the fascinating premise that women are suddenly able to inflict pain and death at will. This is the power of the book’s title. Using a skein inside their bodies they can create and control electricity, shooting lightning from their hands. The battle of the sexes has a new weapon and men are rightly afraid.
The characters are diverse and engaging. They include Alison, a foster child with a dark past; Roxy, the daughter of a British gangster, who vies for power with her brothers to rule the drug trade; and Tatiana, the first lady of Moldova, which becomes the revolutionary training ground for women who have thrown off their oppressors, only to become exactly like them.
There’s also the male character Tunde, a handsome Nigerian photojournalist who travels the globe covering wars and politics in a woman’s world. Only a man, he must adjust to new limits now that he’s the weaker sex.
The Power exposes gender politics reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale. The mirror it holds up reflects power dynamics in our own culture where for many women everything is fine until suddenly it isn’t. It explores feminism, sexism, religion, and rape culture, turning all them upside down and coming to far-reaching conclusions about power and the consequences of its corrupting force.
But The Power assumes that women who gain power will suddenly act as men. It ignores lessons that women may have gleaned from having been oppressed. In this sci-fi fantasy, women are suddenly the worst version of men with their own rape culture.
While physical strength is an important aspect in power dynamics, it’s not the only social factor working to keep women in their place. In an attempt to show that women can be just as violent and cruel as men, Alderman creates an overly simplistic society.
There is no exploration of the power change within a marriage, and Alderman’s Western blinkers are clear in her depiction of Saudi women rising up to riot when they gain power, without any apparent struggle with their religion or culture.
Despite these weaknesses, it’s an exciting read. Alderman knows how to build tension, and creates an atmosphere of constant underlying threat. The content is graphic and it should come with a trigger warning for its themes of violence and revenge.
The main text is written from the viewpoint of a man living in an oppressive matriarchy. Neil is from the Men Writers Association, and Naomi Alderman is his colleague. In breaking the fourth wall, and casting herself as a character, Alderman taps into the current trend of intertextuality in fiction. Characters from one universe can meet with those in another despite barriers such as the time or the universe they inhabit, or even whether one is real and another is fictional.
This is also true of the drawings of artefacts which are scattered throughout the story. Some are fictional, others real archaeological finds from world history. In the acknowledgements, Alderman points out that the picture of the soapstone Priest King and the bronze Dancing Girl were named without context by the archaeologists who found them. This tells us a lot about our culture, in which a male figure is given a name that claims he has domain over God and humankind, and the female figure’s name says that she dances for him. In the pages of The Power the female artefact is renamed Priestess Queen.
The Power is a brilliant analogy for men wishing to understand that the world that they inhabit is not the same as the one women do. It appears identical but there are threats and expectations that are different. In this it succeeds utterly, showing with subtle delineations what gender lends to perspective. That point when games become threats, and it’s girls against boys.
The Power by Naomi Alderman (Penguin, $26) is available at Unity Books.