Genre: Science fiction, speculative fiction
Similar to: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Could be enjoyed by: Fans of dystopian fiction or readers wanting to explore gendered oppression from another angle
Publication date: 27th October 2016
Imagine a world where, on the basis of your gender, you’re expected to act demurely and not come across as angry or aggressive. A world where you’re patronised, belittled and afraid of physical and sexual violence because you’re not physically strong enough to fight back. A world where society is structured to silence you, dismiss your ideas and treat you as a maid/sex slave. Where you can only leave the house with a chaperone, aren’t allowed to drive, can’t go out at night, can’t run a business or own property, can’t vote and have to dress in an appropriate manner.
That’s not too hard to imagine, right? Because I bet you related those ideas to the treatment of women in places like the Middle East (or maybe even the UK or US).
Ok, so now imagine that I wasn’t talking about the treatment of women – I was talking about the treatment of men.
That’s exactly what Naomi Alderman did in her prize-winning novel “The Power”. In it, women have developed a “skein”, a body organ that produces an electrical charge at will. Some women have a stronger charge than others but almost all are able to produce a bolt of electricity so strong that it can kill whoever they aim it at. Only women are affected and the book follows four individuals (three women and one man) to see how the world changes.
The novel is also a book within a book, where a fictional male character (Ben) writes to Alderman from some point in the future, daring to challenge the assumption that men have always been the weaker sex. The subtlety in the writing of these letters is incredible – the way that Ben defers to Alderman, her arguments that biologically women have to be strong and dominant to protect their children, her patronising tone and the final killer line to help Ben’s research to gain credibility “have you considered publishing it under a woman’s name?” all absolutely slayed me. It also highlighted some important points about our own long held beliefs about inherent gender differences – are they really as factual as we think or are they based on lazy stereotypes?
The main thrust of the novel showed how, as always, absolute power corrupts absolutely. It actually shocked me how there was a part of me genuinely cheering on the women who used their newfound strength to oppress the men. One of the best illustrations of this is the inclusion of two news anchors (one male, one female) and the shifting power dynamic between them as women across the globe caused riots, overthrew governments and created wars to exercise their dominance. Again, the subtlety of the writing was excellent but it really made me question the bit of myself that was thinking “ha! Now you know what it’s like!” which kind of suggests that as much as I would have hoped that the discovery of The Power would have created an equal society, the chances are that things would probably play out exactly as described. And – and this is a terrible transgression and one that I’m not proud of – you know who annoyed me the most? The men’s rights activists. I’m a terrible person and a very guilty feminist. 😈
I read that Naomi Alderman doesn’t like people referring to her work as dystopian fiction because for a lot of women this is simply their lived reality. It was amazing how, by simply flipping the genders, the treatment of men felt so abhorrent – and yet we know that women around the globe are treated like this every day. The Power made me confront my own internalised misogyny in a way that completely took me by surprise (I genuinely didn’t think I had any) and made me think about gender issues from an entirely different perspective. If anything, it’s actually given me a tiny bit of empathy towards men who think that feminists are just miserable women trying to take over the world – we’re obviously not but I can see why, from their lofty privileged perches, some men might see feminism as a threat to their way of life – which I guess it might be. (That’s about the point that my empathy dissipates and I think “why do you think you’re entitled to this? It’s not fair!” and I’m back to bring angry.)
The only issue that I had with The Power was the characters. In The Great Female Power Grab most of them behave horribly and there wasn’t really anyone that I connected with. I think this lack of engagement was the missing cherry from the top of the cake – if just one character had been a bit nicer then this really would have been a five star review 😥
Overall, The Power is a dazzling, electrifying book (see what I did there? Ok I stole the pun from Margaret Atwood but still). The premise is incredibly ambitious and it made me think about power and gender dynamics from an entirely different perspective. If only the characters had been more likeable I would have been fangirling left right and centre but as it stands…
Rating: Four “Not all women!” out of five
Clever, unique, thought proving but not quite attention grabbing enough – the best chips you’ve ever had but without salt and vinegar .
Please note that I read this novel as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2018 #17 Read a sci-fi novel with a female protagonist by a female author.