The Power by Naomi Alderman

A late entry but The Power has shot into the top spot in my favourite books of the year.

thepowerWow! What a treat! I’ve been flicking through the pages and can’t wait to dive in. I see you’ve included some scenes with male soldiers, male police officers and ‘boy crime gangs’, just as you said you would, you saucy boy! I don’t have to tell you how much I enjoy that sort of thing. I’m sure you remember. I’m practically on the edge of my seat.
Anyway! Looking forward to this! I think I’d rather enjoy this ‘world run by men’ you’ve been talking about. Surely a kinder, more caring, and — dare I say it? — more sexy world than the one we live in.

One day, soon, teenage girls develop the ability to fire electricity from their hands, and the world changes overnight. We follow four characters trying to make sense of this new world: Roxy, the daughter of a London crime family; Tunde, a young boy who becomes a YouTube journalist documenting the phenomenon; Margot, a politician who works out how to use the situation to her advantage; and finally Allie, who can control her power better than anyone and who, as Mother Eve, will use it to forge a new religion for their age.

At first, The Power is a cathartic read, as teenage girls scare off would-be harassers, trafficked women break out of their prisons and sex workers reclaim the streets. There’s something so intoxicating about the idea of teenage girls, typically the most mocked demographic of our society, suddenly taking control. The backlash is almost immediate, as groups of men from street gangs to national armies try to contain them, but the girls work out how to use their power in inventive ways and overwhelmingly prevail. They start to seize power.

The most interesting character is Allie, who, as Eve, and guided by the voices in her head, works out how to use her power to heal. She gathers around her other girls who have been forced out of their homes, and gains a cult following. In contrast, Margot uses her power for political advantage, and there’s an amazing scene of a televised debate between her and her male opponent that especially resonated with me this week. And Roxy uses hers to support her life of organised crime.

As the years go by, and people learn to live in this new world, the darker side of the power begins to show. We gradually see women start to subtly objectify men, then outwardly objectify them, and finally learn that they can rape. Totalitarian states spring up, and men’s rights are gradually eroded. This book wants us to know that women aren’t inherently kinder or gentler than men, but that groups with power will always take the advantage that they can. After a while, I started to feel uncomfortable about how much I had enjoyed the initial sections — I had wanted justice for women but I didn’t mean for things to get out of hand.

The overarching plot of The Power is a suspenseful countdown to something — we don’t know what it is, but we begin to have a horrible suspicion as the years count down. It’s also surrounded by a framing device, where five thousand years in the future, writers Naomi and Neil discuss whether it can ever be true that society was ruled by men, and imagining what that would be like. But aside from the plot, it’s the writing that makes this book so amazing: the scenes are written so cleverly that you can see the subtle shifts in power between the characters, simply in their dialogue and how they react to each other. As we follow Tunde, a man who is trying to adjust to his loss of status, we watch him lose self-confidence, second guess himself, and start to feel unsafe on his own: a mirror to what happens to women in our society. And even Neil writes to Naomi in a self-deprecating way, while Naomi breezily jokes about how exciting it would be if men were charge, safe in the knowledge that it will never happen.

Anyone who has read feminist SF will be familiar with imagined societies run by women — but I’ve never seen such a compelling explanation of how we might get there, and what the implications might be. It reminded me of the final section of The Female Man; when I reviewed that last year I thought it was too angry and radical to be published now — but The Power feels like its successor.

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