She’s got THE POWER

A book review of The Power by Naomi Alderman by an author who shall remain nameless.

One of my favorite hobbies is asking just what would happen if humanity encountered an ‘Outside Context Problem,’ something that would change our society in unpredictable ways.  The return of magic, first contact with an alien race … it doesn’t even have to be something completely out of this world.  How many early writers – Rand, Asimov, Doc Smith – failed to anticipate the birth of the microchip, the internet, smartphones … things that have already reshaped parts of our society?  What next will change the world?

The Power asks just such a question.  And, in many ways, the answers are disturbing.

The basic premise of The Power is that, all over the world, teenage girls are developing the ability to generate and channel bursts of electricity.  (Not unlike electric eels.)  The ‘power’ can push someone away … or kill them.  Furthermore, younger women can awaken the power in older ones.  The handful of early ‘awakenings’ rapidly becomes a river, then a flood.  The Power makes its way around the world before human society quite realizes what is going on, chaos following in its wake.

The story is told through four viewpoint characters – Margot, an American politician; Roxy, the daughter of a British gangster; Allie/Eve, an American runaway; Tunde, a student who becomes a roving reporter.  All four of them have their lives uprooted and reshaped by the Power – Margot starts climbing the latter to the very top, Roxy takes over her father’s ‘business,’ Allie/Eve founds a whole new religion and Tunde documents everything, travelling the world to film the effects the Power.

Beyond this, The Power is framed as a historical novel written in the far future (perhaps not unlike The Handmaid’s Tale, although it has been years since I read it.)  I actually forgot this as I started reading the main story, only to be reminded of it at the end.  The author deserves full credit for this as the epilogue explains some of the odder parts of the story, the bits that didn’t quite make sense.  But I’ll get to that in a moment.

The Power presents itself as an ‘event’ story – it tries to touch on the lives of all four characters and tell a global story.  And it does, to a very large extent, a very good job – three of the main characters remain localized, while the fourth walks the world and provides a global perspective.

Indeed, Alderman deserves credit for not forgetting that there is a world outside the US and UK (she’s British).  The Power causes disturbances in America – Britain doesn’t seem to be so badly affected, at least at first – but it causes immediate upheaval in places like Saudi Arabia, the Middle East and India.  Alderman has no truck with the belief that women are uniquely oppressed in the West.  Saudi women, feeling their strength for the first time, rise up against the religious police and a social structure bent on keeping women firmly under control.  In India, women make shows of force against rape culture; in the Balkans, women trafficked and sold into slavery fight back, first against the traffickers themselves and then against their entire society.

I’ve heard the book described as a SJW rant.  It is not.  Alderman clearly does not believe that a world run by women would be a kinder, gentler place.  Given power – the Power – women can be just as bad as men, if not worse.  Throughout the second half of the book, as the world starts to slip further and further off its axis, it becomes clear that the Power is something akin to a drug.  Women can get drunk with power, just like men.  And the results can be just as devastating.

Alderman does very well in presenting a world where some societies have fragmented and others have an uneasy sense that they’re on thin ice, trying to find ways to tame or remove the Power before it’s too late.  I wish, in many ways, that she’d actually written a longer book, because the details are fascinating.  On the other hand, it would be easy to get lost in detail if there was more of it.

On the other hand, there is something subtly wrong about the main characters.  It actually took me some time to put my finger on the true fridge brilliance.  The Power doesn’t just feature a change in human biology, it predicts a change in human nature itself.  The three female characters become more and more like men as they go along – Margot starts out as a likeable character, then devolves into a parody of a powerful and untouchable man.  Indeed, the roles have reversed themselves completely.  Roxy, midway through the book, recounts being molested as a child and how her gangster father taught the bastard a lesson; later on, it is Roxy who avenges her brother after he is raped.  By the end of the book, the reversal is striking – women act like bad parodies of men and vice versa.

This also leads to another deconstruction – deliberate or otherwise – of the ‘all girls want bad boys’ trope.  Tunde’s early reaction to encountering the Power has a lot in common with female scenes from bad bodice-rippers (or Twilight, for that matter); he is poised between arousal and fear.  And while the idea of having a super-strong vampire stalker or a millionaire with a BDSM kink for a boyfriend may sound cool, it doesn’t take long for the real unpleasant implications to sink in.  Alderman may well be pointing out the true dangers of the trope – it blinds Tunde to the danger of losing his rights and freedom until it is almost too late.  

Indeed, there is an air of inevitability about the ending.  I found that annoying at first, then I was reminded that the whole thing is presented as a historical novel, written by a man in a matriarchal society.   The outcome, as far as he is concerned, is preordained.  Indeed, the social collapse at the end of The Power is so far in the past that the male-dominated world is believed to be a myth.  They literally don’t believe in it, to the point where the female editor regards the male writer with amused condensation.

I don’t know how likely that actually is to happen.  Our society took the shape it did for many reasons, not just male physical strength.  But if you smash human society into fragments, what takes its place might be very different.

One of the odder aspects lies in the legal response to the Power.  One (American) politician insists that women with the Power are effectively comparable to people walking around with loaded guns.  He wants them banned from government offices.  Alderman clearly wants us to draw a comparison between the Power and male strength, but there is a legal response to physical assault.  A man who attacks his co-worker – male or female – will be arrested, tried and imprisoned.  Why would this be different when a woman attacks her co-worker with the Power?  On the other hand, Alderman could have been pointing out the fallacy of the ‘I couldn’t control myself’ argument.

Another odder point lies in politics.  Margot did very well when it came to handling the early problems caused by the Day of the Girls.  She certainly had an excellent opportunity to parley her success into greater political power.  Men – and women too, I think – admire movers, shakers and … achievers.  (Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel, love them or hate them, were definitely achievers; Hillary Clinton conspicuously was not.)  Margot made a series of correct calls and her political career benefited.  On the other hand, she semi-accidentally attacked her opponent during a political debate and won anyway.  Even she wonders at her victory after that.  I am unaware of any American politician in recent history who did anything of the sort and got away with it.

And, in the end, I couldn’t help wondering if Alderman was commenting on identity politics too.

Most historical societies operated on the rule of force – the strong issued the orders and the weak did as they were told or got thumped.  The ideal of the West is something different – the rule of law.  Our society is based on the legal principle that all are equal before the law, regardless of every little detail.  This is true equality.  Feminists – and everyone representing a marginalized group – should be very careful not to imperil this.  This is the bedrock of our society.

Identity politics are gnawing away at our vitals.  If the group identity of a criminal is more important than the personal identity, we lose.  If one group is seen to have power and privileges that other groups lack, those groups will demand it for themselves and/or turn against the whole concept.  The recent attempt to brand people who didn’t make eye contact as racist, for example, was so stupid that people could be forgiven for ignoring all suggestions of racism forever.  They might not be right, but they would have a point.  This, perhaps, is the true problem facing modern-day feminism.  It’s in danger of losing sight of what is truly important.

Alderman, in an interview, proposes that every girl be given self-defense training.  It is actually a very good suggestion, one that feminists should adopt.  When seconds count, help is minutes away.  It’s certainly a more practical suggestion than many others I’ve seen from Social Justice Warriors.  The men who pay attention when they’re told not to rape aren’t the ones who need the lessons.  What are you going to do about them?  Or about women who make fake accusations of rape, casting doubt on genuine reports?

Several other reviewers have commented on other aspects of the book.  It largely ignores race and makes little mention of transgenders.  (Of course, a crueler society might mock the transgendered rather than taking them seriously.  Argus Fitch can self-identify as a wizard, if he wishes, but he’ll be lucky if he only gets laughed at.)  Truthfully, The Power covers so much ground – in a relatively small book – that I don’t blame Alderman for not touching on everything.

Overall, The Power is a thought-provoking book … although there is plenty of room to disagree with some of the answers!  I don’t generally like the present tense format Alderman used, but she made it work.  The letters framing the story are amusing, yet bitterly ironic.  On the other hand, a cynic might argue that the true moral of the book – and of a society ruled by force – is that the world is always divided into ‘victims’ and ‘victimizers’ and that it is better to be a ‘victimizer’ than a ‘victim.’

Personally, I consider that rather sad.  And it is a demonstration of precisely why we need the rule of law.