book review: Naomi Alderman, The Power (2016)

That’s not all electric eels can do. They can ‘remote control’ the muscles in their prey by interfering with the electric signals in the brain. They can make those fish swim straight into their mouths if they want to.

Along comes a new, prizewinning novel about Female power, written by a Woman, and i nearly miss it. 


First things first – stop wasting your time reading this blog, and go buy a copy. Then, you can come back. i’ll wait.

Got it? Good. 

So, the premise is that through some strange environmental mutation (the detail of which doesn’t matter much in the book, or here), adolescent Girls start finding Themselves able to release overwhelming surges of electricity through Their fingertips. Those who discover it first are the abused and downtrodden, because it leaches out by accident in moments of danger. They can’t control it properly, but it doesn’t take long to learn. 

That is a mighty power indeed. You would have to have control. Why, but you’ve always had control, daughter. And you’d have to be skilful. Why, but you can learn those skills.

No-one knows where it comes from, but it is quickly clear that Girls have it and boys do not. More, Girls can awaken it in older Women. Grainy films start to surface on the internet; men being punished, killed even, by gangs of Women, in distant corners of the globe. (It would have to be distant and grainy, wouldn’t it. i don’t know why, but that’s how fiction works). 

By now, men are sitting round watching this stuff on YouTube and getting mighty unsettled, but consoling themselves that it’s OK, we’ll be OK, because our gals are happy, they like their lot. (Not like over in Saudi, you can see why they’d be a little cross, frankly, because it does seem a bit much). They even hope for a cure, because obviously strong women is something that needs curing, for their sake as much as ours.

In the upper floors of the mall, Tunde sees some men and women watching. The young women around him laugh and point at them and make a crackle pass between their fingertips. The men flinch. The women stare hungrily. Their eyes are parched for the sight of it.

men in this book come in two formats, the bad guys, who get frazzled, and the good guys who (whisper) seem to quite enjoy it, albeit with the power turned down low. 

A little bit of a spark in the back passage and up he comes, neat as anything. It’s fun, if you want it. Hurts a bit, but fun. Hurts a lot if you don’t want it. Ricky kept on saying he didn’t want it. They took their turns on him. They were just trying to hurt him, he says, and he was saying, did they want money, what did they want, but one of them got him in the throat and he couldn’t make another sound until they were finished.

The years begin to pass. Just about all Women have it by now, and the rubber shoes popular with men aren’t really providing much protection. Regimes tumble. Attitudes shift.

The young blond man bounds in front of her with the bottle. ‘Was it this one, Madam?’ Tatiana looks at him. She tips her head to one side. The young man swallows. ‘I’m sorry,’ he says. ‘Did I tell you to speak?’ she says. He drops his eyes to the floor. ‘Just like a man,’ she says. ‘Does not know how to be silent, thinks we always want to hear what he has to say, always talking talking talking, interrupting his betters.’ The young man looks like he’s about to say something, but thinks better of it. ‘Needs to be taught some manners,’ says one of the women standing behind Allie, one of those who run the group seeking justice for old crimes.

Yikes. Calls for a new ideology?

Think it over, they say. Men are dangerous. Men commit the great majority of crimes. Men are less intelligent, less diligent, less hard-working, their brains are in their muscles and their pricks. Men are more likely to suffer from diseases and they are a drain on the resources of the country. Of course we need them to have babies, but how many do we need for that? Not as many as women. Good, clean, obedient men, of course there will always be a place for those. But how many is that? Maybe one in ten.

The futurology of the book – the what-would-happen-if, is generally nicely judged. Ms Alderman is not here to tell us that if Women were in charge it would all be yoga, nurture and nutritious breakfasts. The email exchanges from the distant future that frame the book are a nicely nuanced power play between male and Female correspondents looking back on the events of the novel and musing on the scraps of archaeological evidence suggesting that there was a forgotten age when men were stronger (imagine!)

Just occasionally, though, i think The Power strays across the line into the kind of role-reversal that made Besant’s The Fall of Man (for example) entertaining for all the wrong reasons:

You can’t be serious, Kristen, is that really what they’re saying? I’m afraid it is, Matt. She puts a gentle hand on his knee. And of course they’re not talking about great guys like you, but that is the message of some extremist websites. That’s why the NorthStar girls need more authority; we’ve got to protect ourselves against these people. 

Matt nods, his face sombre. I blame those men’s rights people; they’re so extreme, they’ve provoked this kind of response. But now we have to protect ourselves. He breaks into a smile. And after the break, I’ll be learning some fun self-defence moves you can practise at home.

Role reversal is entertaining as satire but it doesn’t always ring true, as here. Just because power changes hands doesn’t mean everything else switches round too. Indeed this is one of the reasons Ms Alderman chose electricity as the weapon – She didn’t want to have to give Her Women biceps (see the podcast link below). And, of course, the cat is already out of the bag on male dominance. We wouldn’t forget it in centuries, let alone a few months. Watching old gangster films would be a thing.

Here’s lovely matt again:

In the room, Tunde flicks on the TV. Kristen is saying, The fourth-quarter forecast isn’t looking good. Matt is laughing attractively and saying, Now, I don’t understand that kind of thing at all, but I’ll tell you what I do know about: apple-bobbing.

i think, probably, Ms Alderman’s mentor Margaret Atwood would have told Her not to do that, had She asked.

So, the central question of this book (the one you just bought) is, what would happen if Women wielded some mysterious but irresistable power over men? i can’t help pointing out that with some of us, They already do. There is a beauty in this vision of unassailable, powerful victorious Women. But we dont need the discovery of magic powers to take us there. Gynarchy could do that.

Podcast: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07xhzy8

More: http://www.naomialderman.com/

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