Was the power that women have in The Power caused by an environmental build-up of a WW2 nerve agent that has changed the human genome as some scientists believe? Or is it simply a mutation? An anthropologist suggests this electric organ in girls is proof positive of the aquatic-ape hypothesis; that we are naked of hair because we come, not from the jungles, but from the oceans where we terrified the deeps like the electric eel, the electric ray. No one knows quite for sure, but two things are certain: One, teenage girls everywhere suddenly have the power to release electricity from their fingers – Electrical jolts that can hurt, maim, and even kill. Two, the world will never be the same again, with men no longer dominant.
Science fiction has always been questioning the status quo especially when it comes to social and political systems, gender relations and the imbalance of power. Naomi Alderman carries forward this tradition in powerful fashion with The Power. An SF classic of our times described as the ‘Handmaid’s Tale of our era’ and a great addition to feminist literature, The Power won the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2017 for its portrayal of a world where girls have the power to rule the world and do.
It all begins with young girls discovering they can now zap others. As a team from Delhi discovers, it is due to a strip of striated muscle across the girls’ collarbones which they name the ‘organ of electricity’, or ‘the skein’ for its twisted strands. The buds of the skein have been observed in new-born girls which means that every female born from then will now have the power. Older women meanwhile have to learn to develop the power. Needless to say, this power becomes a weapon in the hands of women and the world stands changed forever.
Women everywhere use the power to rise up, against their political oppressors, individual attackers or to even fend off over-enthusiastic dates. Footage of girls electrocuting men floods the internet as girls everywhere come to grips with how to harness this power. Riots break out in India, Saudi Arabia and Moldova. Soon, society as a whole is rewired, with ‘boys dressing as girls to seem more powerful. Girls dressing as boys to shake off the meaning of the power’. The direction of violence is reversed. Parents tell their boys not to go out alone, warning them not to stray too far. Boys are segregated into single-sex schools for their safety. A new genre of porn emerges that fetishizes this new-found power of women. Religious organizations find themselves reimagining their teachings to adapt – whether they like it or not – to the Mother being supreme now. “Jews: look to Miriam, not Moses … Muslims: look to Fatimah, not Muhammad. Buddhists: remember Tara, the mother of liberation. Christians: pray to Mary for your salvation.”
The Power is a book-within-a-book with the supposed author of the manuscript that forms the book being Neil Adam Armon (living in the far future where male dominance is a thing of the past) who has written this book to chronicle and detail out the world-changing events that happened with the emergence of the power, and whose correspondence with a certain Naomi ends the novel.
A book that hits the ground running in thriller-like fashion, The Power’s story unfolds through the experiences of four key characters between whom the chapters alternate: Allie, an abused American foster kid who takes it upon herself to be the voice of the goddess on Earth and goes on feminize faith; Roxy, the estranged daughter of a London gangster who finds that her power is potent than most and who joins Allie in her mission; Margot, a middle-aged American politician moving swiftly up the ranks defending the girls with power and who sets up training camps for to help girls control their power; and the only male, Tunde, a Nigerian journalist through whose eyes we glimpse a changing world as he reports on the global changes and himself learns what it is like to come of age as a male, the weaker sex. All their paths intertwine, with Alderman providing enough details about this world, from the small details of everyday incidents to the bigger global picture.
Just as the story of female domination of the world and a feminist paradise builds up, Alderman tempers it with the fact that power corrupts, and not even women are immune from it. For the changed world of The Power is not a benign matriarchy such as the Ladyland of Begum Rokeya Hossain. Women have the power now, and it’s their turn to use it, abuse it. And The Power is unflinching in its portrayal of women who are abusive and violent, making a point that the all-too-human desire for dominance is perhaps gender-neutral after all. As Alderman notes in the book, “Power doesn’t care who uses it.”
If this sounds dystopian, then maybe we should question what we mean when we say dystopian. Because if the world of The Power is a dystopian one, it is so for the men only, for nothing happens to the men in the book that doesn’t happen – or isn’t happening – to women today. And conversely, the women (with the power) do nothing that men haven’t been doing for ages. To me, therein lies the strength of The Power, in its nuance and which is what makes it an essential read. True, the gender-bending is what gives the books its speculative spirit and makes it immensely thought-provoking, but where it truly excels is in its exploration not just of all the things that change, but also – and more importantly – of the things that don’t. It begins as a story of women and women with their positions of power inverted, but ultimately ends up holding a mirror to us on what makes us human, by delving into the nature of power itself and how we wield it, irrespective of gender.
The Power Truly is a wonderful and powerful piece of fiction – feminist or otherwise – that I recommend you get your hands on and get set for an electrifying read whose story will stay with you long after the last page is turned.
On that note, I bid you farewell until next weekend when I hope to see you here on FactorDaily for another edition of New Worlds Weekly. Live long and prosper!
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Updated at 08:41 pm on August 25, 2018 to correct a typo.