If you could inflict pain with a wave your hand, would you do it? Naomi Alderman’s novel imagines a world where women become the dominant sex. When a genetic mutation lets teenage girls shoot electricity from their fingertips, the traditional power balance flips and men find themselves at risk.
This story is a genre-defying mix of science fiction, dystopian horror with some old-fashioned crime and politics thrown in. To me, some of the characters felt a little flat but The Power makes up for it by creating a magnificent thought experiment.
At first, videos appear online showing teenage girls shooting sparks. As momentum gathers, it becomes clear they’re not a hoax; humans are facing a new phenomenon. Chemicals in the water have caused girls to develop an electricity-producing ‘skein’. What’s more, they can trigger the latent power in older women.
Four characters show the wave of change in crime, politics, religion and media. Roxy, the overlooked, illegitimate daughter of a violent, British mob boss, supplants her brothers in the family’s illegal enterprises. Abused American foster child, Allie, renames herself ‘Mother Eve’ and creates a matriarchal religious movement. Margot represents the political element. An adult whose powers are activated by her daughter, she aims to advance her own career.
The only major male character is Tunde, a globe-trotting, young Nigerian photojournalist. He covers women’s joyful uprisings but learns the new abilities can be used violently. If you decide to pick up this novel be prepared for disturbing scenes.
Combined, the main characters give a page-turning overview of multiple locations and a decade’s worth of change. If I have a complaint, it’s that Allie, Roxy, Margot and Tunde, though well drawn, can feel like ciphers or representations of their chosen fields. I’d have enjoyed more details and complexities, even if it reduced the novel’s pace.
Not the World You Know
As the novel progresses, gender roles reverse. A female news anchor breaks serious stories while her on-air partner, an attractive young man, provides the light relief. The reimagined world breaks down millennia of men’s physical dominance while the author offers social commentary. Revolutions against the patriarchy slide into oppression. The tone becomes tense and optimism is drowned out in an atmosphere of fear.
The story is bracketed with letters between Neil, a nervous author from ‘The Men Writers Association’ and a fictionalised version of Naomi Alderman herself, who breezily objectifies men. We’re told The Power is Neil’s novel, sent to Naomi in search of guidance. Her last line of advice sums up the story but I’m not going give away this well signposted twist – if you want to know more, read the book!
Verdict: Naomi Alderman has created an interesting concept and uses The Power to push it to extremes. Predatory male politicians are replaced by equally sleazy women. Matriarchal interpretations of religion develop and crime continues to spread. If this book has a main message it’s that, given the opportunity, men and women are equally capable of corruption and brutality.