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Review: The Power

Updated: Apr 19, 2023

3/5 stars

The Power, by Naomi Alderman (2016)

TW: Physical violence, murder, rape (men towards women, and women towards men)

The Power opens with a writer asking his mentor's opinion on a draft of his book - a book about the "before-times," before what they call "The Cataclysm," which occurred 5,000 years ago. While we don't know exactly what happened, it seems that the Cataclysm was basically a world-ending event from which it has taken 5,000 years for the human race to recover. We then dive into the present-day in the book-within-a-book, which makes up the majority of The Power. The book is also scattered with illustrations of artifacts from a museum, in the same way we might look at artifacts from ancient Rome.

In the present day, things look normal and recognizable. The narration bounces between four main characters - Allie is a foster child living in an abusive home in the US, Roxy is the daughter of an organized crime boss in the UK, Tunde is a rich Nigerian boy looking to get laid, and Margot is an ambitious American politician with two young daughters. Margot is the only main character that isn't a teenager when the story begins, but she has a teenage daughter, Jocelyn, who becomes more important as the narrative continues.

But then "the day of the girls" happens. Teenage and pre-teen girls all over the world suddenly develop the power to produce electricity. They can use this new power to inflict pain on others - a small jolt, or a devastating, deadly electrocution. They can also "awaken" this power in older women. The patriarchy is suddenly in question. At first, the empowerment that comes along with this electricity is satisfying, if at times somewhat disturbing. Young girls like Allie take revenge on their abusers, or, like Roxy, on others who have done their families wrong. Margot proves she is a worthy opponent in her political campaign for mayor. A group of women bands together to end a sex-trafficking ring... in short, it starts as a sort of revenge fantasy that gives men a taste of what it's like to live under the thumb of systemic misogyny.

But power corrupts, no matter who holds it, and the women who take over become increasingly aggressive. Being a woman is now inherently a position of power. No longer afraid to walk the streets alone at night, many make sure that it feels unsafe for men to do so. A female ditzy blonde sidekick co-anchor becomes the serious news anchor, and gets herself her own ditzy male co-anchor. Allie becomes "Mother Eve," ruler of her own religious cult, which eventually takes over an entire country. Roxy finds the cult and becomes the muscle, the enforcer (as well as a drug-trafficking crime boss in her own right). Margot founds a camp for young girls like her daughter to learn to use their power - basically a training camp for them to become her personal soldiers in her quest for influence. Bands of bloodthirsty women roam forests looking for men to torture, rape, and kill. Wars are started. Men's rights groups commit acts of domestic terrorism as they try to rend back control. It's messy and disturbing, and looks pretty much exactly like what happened with men in power. And in the end, because of lots of different factors, humans basically tear the world apart entirely.

One question comes up multiple times: Why are women doing this? The answer: Because they can. Because once they get a taste for power, they do all the same things men did with it. "It doesn't matter that she shouldn't, that she never would. What matters is that she could, if she wanted. The power to hurt is a kind of wealth." It's a cynical and pessimistic look at human nature, but it's not necessarily outlandish or unrealistic.

Back in the "after-times" we return to the conversation between the author and his mentor. It's clear that in the "re-set" after the world collapsed, women have maintained power. The permanent power-dynamic is this role reversal where, for example, the male author simperingly and apologetically asks for guidance while the female mentor offers thinly veiled condescension in her criticism, and suggest that he might want to write under a female name.

So, the crux is this: What would happen if power dynamics switched? Is it inevitable that human nature would basically just reset to the same imbalance of The Oppressed and The Oppressors? It's a fascinating thought experiment, though it would have been more interesting if the male/female role reversals weren't so oversimplified. Some of the descriptions of the change were heavy-handed and clunky, and anyway I don't think it's a one-to-one comparison. As one Goodreads reviewer pointed out, "The notion that Muslim women are just waiting to throw off their clothes, riot in the street, and have casual sex seems like a blinkered 'Western' perspective." Similarly, one country announces that since men cannot be trusted, they're instituting a system of guardianship, where every man must have official papers stating who his female guardian is, and must have written permission from her to be out in the streets. It doesn't feel believable to me that we've gone from the present-day's freedom-laced-with-misogyny, to some combination of, like, 1800's-era control over women plus Nazi-era control over Jews.

But then, I supposed that's Alderman's founding premise and question - "Is this what would happen if women took over? If yes, let's see what that would look like." So I can't fault it for that. Alderman takes the worst of what humans have done with men in positions of power, and one-ups it when women take over. Does that make me uncomfortable just because I think we - women - are better than that? That we would be better than that? Probably. It certainly got me thinking, and my train of thought brought me to not entirely agreeing with the idea that this is how it would all go down. But it's a really interesting difference to consider (I wish I'd read this with a book club!).

That said, I do think Alderman's idea of "what it means to be male" and "what it means to be female" is reductive. Gender is so much more fluid than is represented here - not only for those that identify as straight females or males, but of course also for trans individuals, or any other personal identifier on the gender spectrum. There is one very minor character who was assigned male at birth but has some of the electric power of women, so, one assumes, is intersex in some way. But the character makes such a brief appearance that the only thing we can really take from it is, "people like that exist." It's a lost opportunity to discuss something that would have been really interesting - particularly in the remade world of 5,000 years post-apocalypse, where gender roles are being reconstructed.

Anyway, it's a really thought-provoking piece of speculative fiction, and if you've read, I'd love to discuss!

Thank you to my friend Elizabeth for the recommendation!


UP NEXT: Amy Among the Serial Killers, by Jincy Willett

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