by Jana Záhoráková
The Power, a science fiction novel by British novelist Naomi Alderman, was published in 2016. It won the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2017 and amongst other prestigious praise, it was one of the books former president Barrack Obama listed as his favourites of that year. The novel consists of several stories of mostly young women who struggle to control and use their newly acquired super-powers which emit electricity. These stories are presented as a historical novel written by a man in a distant future world, dominated by women. The source of this power is regarded to be a mysterious liquid called “Guardian Angel” which was a medication developed during the Second World War that prevents people from dying after being exposed to toxic gas (Alderman 123). It was poured into the water reservoir to protect people from enemies. However, it had an unexpected side effect on the generations of females to come.
The whole premise is reminiscent of an old Louis C.K. joke from one of his stand up bits on his TV series Louie, where he claims that he likes to imagine that many years ago, women were in charge of the world and they were very mean to men‒ which in his comedian logic C.K. takes as a good reason why men are now acting the way they are towards women‒ until one of the men realised that they can hit women and take control (“Pamela Part 1” 00:12:05-00:12:27). Even though C.K. is not the best person to cite in a review of a novel that puts girls, women and their struggles and desires front and centre considering the sexual assault accusations that he admitted to in 2017, this specific joke seems like a possible source of inspiration for The Power.
Another possible inspiration is the Polish cult film Seksmisja, in which women become so fed up with incessant fighting and wars that they build a bomb that destroys every man on the planet. They then proceed to live without them in a sort of cheerless society, breeding solely female babies from tubes and taking medication to supress any sexual urges. After several decades of this kind of life, two men, who were frozen and placed into hibernation in a scientific experiment before the war against men, are resurrected and their existence in this changed world wreaks havoc all around. In both Seksmisja and The Power as well as in C. K.’s joke, it is suggested that a world run solely by women would not be a better or more peaceful place, but the same one we know today with all its problems of power play just with the players reversed.
The stories in the novel take place from the perspectives of the following people: Roxy, Allie, Jocelyn, her mother Margot, and a young aspiring male journalist called Tunde. Their narratives intersect and, in the end, culminate into one. They all come from diverse backgrounds. Their power, and the way they decide to use it, differentiates them as well. Roxy is the daughter of a British criminal. She is often referred to as the one with the most amount of power known (Alderman 274). She uses her gift to avenge the death of her mother and help her father with the family business. Allie is a mixed-race child whose adoptive father is abusive to her. She follows the instructions of a mysterious voice in her head that tells her what to do and when. She uses her power to better her situation and becomes a sort of spiritual leader of the new female community. Jocelyn is an ordinary teenager who, unfortunately, is unable to use her power properly. She learns how to compensate for her lack of power when needed in special camps that her mother starts up. Margot is Jocelyn’s mother and a local politician. After Jocelyn awakens her own powers in Margot, she starts to have much bigger plans for her future. Finally, Tunde is a Nigerian student who attempts to use this whole situation to fulfil his dreams of becoming a world-famous journalist by conducting a comprehensive study of the big change that he can smell hanging in the air.
These stories are introduced as an attempt at a historical novel which aims to narrate how the things might have been just before the change of powers took place and is littered with pieces of evidence like ancient sculptures, images, weapons, and documents. The novel is also framed with letters concerning the novel the author of the book and another female writer called Naomi. In these letters, Naomi warns Neil, the author of the historical novel, that when he talks about male police officers and other uniformed men most women in their world will associate them with sexual roleplaying rather than something serious. Naomi also mentions the way she imagines this for her unrealistic world run by men “surely a kinder, more caring and‒ dare I say it? ‒ more sexy world than the one we live in” (Alderman x). Naomi continues with this line of thinking at the end of the novel: “I feel instinctively‒ and I hope you do, too‒ that a world run by men would be more kind, more gentle, more loving and naturally nurturing [because] The few partial patriarchies that have ever existed in human society have been very peaceful places” (Alderman 333). This suggests that the women of this dystopian future romanticise about the times we live in, because in their reality, men are less powerful, that the female gaze is prevalent to the male gaze in their society. It would, therefore, seem that Alderman is trying to say that it is the power itself that corrupts the people regardless of gender.
The women of this dystopian future romanticise about the times we live in, because in their reality, men are less powerful, that the female gaze is prevalent to the male gaze in their society.
There are also other reminders that the world in the novel is practically the same as the one we live in right now, just with the power dynamics swapped: Neil writes for an institution named in the book as Men Writers Association which suggests that there are such institutions to help men write something from their perspective. In a letter, Neil writes to Naomi: “I know you’re trying. You’re one of the good ones” (Alderman 337) which suggests that in this world her gender is held in their minds as the more dominant within the power dynamics. In her penultimate letter, Naomi mentions another aspect of this new world that would have been related to men in our reality: “How much ʽwhat it means to be a womanʼ is bound up with strength and not feeling fear or pain” (Alderman 337). Even during the story, which starts ten years before ʻthe big swapʼ and finishes just before it takes place, Roxy mentions how she sends her brother on certain errands because she claims, as a boy he is “less threatening; they’re better at diplomacy” (Alderman 233).
In the beginning when the powers are just slowly awakening in some of the young girls, the first instinct the government has is to divide the two genders in schools to prevent girls from hurting the boys. Even earlier, there are references to rape: “Already there are parents telling their boys not to go out alone, not to stray too far . . . ʽOnce you’ve seen that happen, no mom would let her boys out of her sightʼ says a grey-faced woman on TV” (Alderman 21). This statement is strongly reminiscent of the deplorable advice given girls in the real world: i.e. do not dress in a way that might provoke boys. A notorious example of this came in 2011 when a Toronto police officer recommended that girls better not dress like ʻslutsʼ if they want to stay safe¹. In The Power, this slight nod to language related to rape later escalates into real danger when girls all over the world figure out that they can literally rape men by using the electricity in their bodies to force them into intercourse against their will. This new aspect of the power is succinctly put by Roxy: “This is not what happens to a man. Except now it is” (Alderman 195).
Alderman plays with the idea that power is the most important element in the game and that a world run by women would not be that different from the one we know today as power is the thing that spoils good intentions.
The question of rape becomes even more complicated with an interesting question from Allie: “Could it be that boys like it? Is it possible they want it?” (Alderman 42). There is no obvious answer, however, the novel attempts to at least open these questions and discussions about them. Even Tunde, the only male protagonist has an ambivalent reaction to seeing electricity during a sexual encounter: “He’d like someone to do that to him, maybe. Maybe” (Alderman 55). After one of Roxy’s brothers is raped so savagely by three girls‒ that he is made infertile, Roxy tracks the girls down in order to revenge him. Once found, the girls plead for Roxy’s mercy. One of them, however, confidently explains that:
he bloody loved it . . . He was asking for it. He begged us for it. Fucking begged us, followed us, told us what he wanted done to him. Filthy little scrote, knew just what he was looking for, couldn’t get enough of it, wanted us to hurt him, would have licked up my piss if I’d asked him, that’s your fucking brother. Looks like butter wouldn’t melt, but he’s a dirty little boy. (Alderman 196-197)
It is a typical case of words against words. Roxy decides to punish the girls severely, but she also vows to talk to her brother not to seek out such dangerous excitements when she is capable and willing to provide him with such service in a more secure way.
At the very beginning, it does not look very promising for the young girls discovering their new skills. Processes and rituals resembling witch trials plague their existence. Allie comments on this matter-of-factly: “There has been a great tide in the movement of people, and those old days have taken precedence again. Girls thrown out on to the street‒ the nuns will take them in” (Alderman 41). The girls struggle until they realise that they have the ability to ignite this power in older women who better know how to control their bodies. These elder women have more power and say in society and government and are, therefore, capable of installing much needed changes and institutions to help organise the younger females. Together, women and girls around the world can change the world: in Allie’s words: “God is telling the world that there is to be a new order. That the old way is overturned” (Alderman 46).
The slow rise of the girls is captured in great detail by Tunde, the only male protagonist of the novel. One of his first reports is from Riyadh where two twelve-year old girls had been murdered. They had been caught practicing their new-found skills by a religious uncle who considered what they were doing was ʻthe devil’s workʼ. The uncle calls on his friends to put a stop to it, but the reaction turns into a rally and empowers all the women in Moldova: “they fought back. A dozen women turned into a hundred. A hundred into a thousand. The police retreated. The women shouted; some made placards. They understood their strength, all at once” (Alderman 56). When Tunde attempts to mingle with the crowd, the women laugh at him and explain: “You cannot walk with us, CNN . . . There will be no man with us today . . . We are the ones who bring the light” (Alderman 57). The power unites the women, the brutal violence against their kind provides them with a purpose to tear down the system that demonises women and holds them back at every opportunity. Now that they finally have the power, they will no longer be subjected to male authorities.
Together, women and girls around the world can change the world.
The archival evidence from the so called “ʻCataclysm Eraʼ” aka ʻthe big reversal of powerʼ dates back to five thousand years, which means that either technology did not change that much over this long period of time, or more likely, that ʻthe big changeʼ triggered some kind of apocalypse and it took five millennia to get back to the kind of civilisation that resembles the 21st century in the real world, but with matriarchy instead of patriarchy as the dominant pattern in society (Alderman 213). In both instances, it seems strange that the language itself would not reflect the changes in the society. For example, the feminist insistence on retelling history from the perspective of women and the term “herstory” that they associated with these attempts of giving priority to these perspectives. It seems logical that in a world that defies patriarchy, Neil should not be writing historical, but rather herstorical novels. Indeed, the only new words presented in the novel are introduced in the narrative which takes place before the ʽapocalypseʼ rather than in the letters written in the distant future. They appear when Margot lists a number of swear words invented to define girls who “can’t or won’t defend herself . . . blanket . . . flat battery . . . Gimp. Flick. Nesh. Pzit” (Alderman 64). However, these words never occur naturally in the dialogues, their sole appearances is in this list and no other words invented in this era are introduced apart from the word “skein” which refers to the source of power in females located somewhere near their collarbones (Alderman 20).
The importance of the voice narrating the story is emphasised several times in the novel. For example, the whole structure with the male writer writing letters and asking for advice about this historical novel. Interestingly, in the end, the female writer only referred to as Naomi suggests to Neil that it might help his book if he publishes it under a female name. When Tunde decides to embark on a journalistic journey to travel around the world and capture this ever-changing situation, he says to himself: “I’ll be the one who’ll tell the story . . . This is it. His war, his revolution, his history” (Alderman 55). Tunde aims to write a big book about the new emerging society, about the changes caused by this sudden gift of females. He wants to write a study that could be compared to De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America or Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. Unfortunately for him, all of the interviews and essays he has written about the “Great Change” are published under the name of his female colleague whom he has been sending work in progress as a backup plan. She decides to take credit for his great work after he is falsely pronounced dead (Alderman 267).
This book is a gripping page-turner. Once you start reading you will most likely not be able to put it down. Alderman came up with a very interesting way to capture the troubled relationship between men and women by shifting the power balance between the two sexes. In doing so, she turns the tables and asks what the result of such change would be. As the title suggests and as was mentioned in this review, Alderman plays with the idea that power is the most important element in the game and that a world run by women would not be that different from the one we know today as power is the thing that spoils good intentions. As Bridget Read points out “[the book] doesn’t necessarily hold the answers” but that is what makes the novel so thrilling‒ Alderman offers dilemmas and lets it up to the reader to worry about any attempts at answering them.
This absurd piece of advice by a policeman to female students on a university campus that sparked the SlutWalks phenomenon across Northern America by simple recommending this despite his colleagues telling him not to say it.
Alderman, Naomi. The Power. Penguin Books, 2017.
Seksmisja. Directed by Juliusz Machulski, KADR, 1984.
“Naomialderman – Bio and Contact.” Naomi Alderman, www.naomialderman.com/about/.
“Pamela Part 1.” Louie. FX, F/X, 2 Jun. 2014