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The Power by Naomi Alderman

Published by Little, Brown and Company on October 10, 2017

The Power is a story told in the far future about a transformative time that is very near to our present. In the far future, men are docile and nurturing, while women (scientists assume) have evolved to be aggressive and violent so they can protect their babies. But the story told in The Power is an attempt to reconstruct history by a historian who wrote a fictional account of a world run by men. The historian had to write his account as fiction because no one in the future was prepared to accept patriarchy as a plausible state of affairs. The historian views the Cataclysm (an apocalyptic conflict that everyone agrees occurred) as a gender war. The novel-within-a-novel explains how the Cataclysm might have happened.

The Power imagines that women suddenly develop an “electrostatic” power that men lack — essentially, the power to transmit a controlled burst of electricity. Men resent (and fear) a power that they lack. The initial message, of course, is “welcome to the world of women” or “how does it feel when the tables are turned?” The message might put off the vocal minority of science fiction fans who think sf should have frozen its themes in the patriarchal 1950s, but since science fiction has long appealed to open-minded readers, I suspect that most readers will judge this novel on its merits.

The story follows a number of characters, including Roxy Monke (the daughter of a crime family) and Allie (who lives in foster care). Roxy is 14 when, defending her mother from an attack, she discovers her power. Unfortunately, the power doesn’t save her mother from their assailants.

Like Roxy, 16-year-old Allie has had her fill of abusive men when she finds her power, changes her name to Eve, and hitchhikes across the country. She eventually becomes known as Mother Eve, a cult figure who helps found a mother-centric religion, premised on the belief that the power is divinely inspired.

As girls discover and master their power, they learn how to awaken it in older women. Men feel threatened; two girls in Riyadh are killed for practicing their deviltry (i.e., making sparks fly between their hands). Women in Moldova create a new country as a refuge for formerly sex-trafficked women. A male journalist named Tunde Edo tries to act as a witness to all of this and to document it when he can.

The last two noteworthy characters are a woman named Margot, who conceals her power for a time to further her political career, and her daughter Jocelyn, whose power doesn’t function well (at least until she has a religious moment with Mother Eve).

The government’s initial reaction the power reflects the natural resistance of oppressors to change: isolate the girls, don’t let them reproduce, develop a vaccine to remove the power. Preachers denounce the power as the work of Satan. Do men feel threatened because they fear the women, or do they feel threatened because women no longer fear men? That’s one of the many questions that make The Power such an interesting novel.

The Power is not a simplistic story in which women are good and men are bad. Eve is a charlatan, barely a step above a fraudulent faith healer. Margot is Machiavellian in her approach to political power; she quickly understands the relationship between governmental power and industrial power. She develops her own private army of empowered women and is far from the first person to learn that conflict can be profitable.

Power corrupts, and when women rise to power, they are as easily corrupted as men, and just as vicious when they stifle dissent. As history demonstrate, the oppressed too often become oppressors when they gain the upper hand.

The characters are credible, but so is the reaction of society, which is drawn from current events. As women become used to their powers, a male supremacist movement arises, supported by angry bloggers, which spawns extremist groups of women, some of whom think that the final solution is to get rid of all but the most subservient men, who need to be spared for procreative uses. The movement members on both sides are irrational, but they reflect the blogger-driven supremacy movements that have gained such a loud voice during the last year. Extremism begets extremism, and extremists on either side of a social issue can be inhuman, a point the novel illustrates convincingly.

The Power is smart, biting, nuanced in its exploration of gender roles and perceptive in its understanding that history is written by the victor (or at least by those who are currently empowered). It’s also a good story that uses intelligent characters to raise serious questions about the role of gender in societies across the world.


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