While the premise of Naomi Alderman’s sci-fi novel The Power shares the exploration of gender roles via an alternate reality with Stephen and Owen King’s doorstopper Sleeping Beauties, Alderman’s slimmer volume is more ambitious and more successful in achieving its ambitions both structurally and thematically. The story about women gaining the power to shoot electricity from their fingertips is bookended by letters between a man named Neil and a woman named Naomi that frame the narrative as one actually written by Neil–a device that works to turn the content of the story on its head, especially when you take into account that the novel Neil has written is “historical.”
Inside the frame, the narrative is divided into chapters that shift between four main characters experiencing the emergence of the electrostatic power, though later on, chapters are given here and there to other characters; the chapters are divided into parts that provide a decade-long countdown to a cataclysmic global war. Our four main characters are 1) Roxy, the daughter of a British mob family who witnesses her mother’s murder and whom the power manifests in very strongly, 2) Tunde, a male reporter who travels the world chronicling the power’s effects and the buildup to war as rebellions break out, 3) Margot, a woman who rises up the American political ranks from small-town mayor to senator, and 4) Allie, an abused orphan who hears a voice in her head that leads her to start a new religious movement as Mother Eve.
These four characters follow separate independent tracks for the first parts of the novel, their paths eventually converging as they move toward the the war that starts in Moldova–rechristened Bessapara by its new leader Tatiana Moskalev, who’s implied to have killed her husband, the former oppressive ruler. Margot is called on to pledge political support for Tatiana’s war against the forces threatening to undo Bessapara, while Allie and Roxy essentially become Tatiana’s soldiers–until Tatiana goes crazy with paranoia and Allie, her right-hand woman, deems it necessary to kill her. The skein that a woman’s electric power comes from is located in a muscle along the collarbone; Roxy, who peddles a drug called Glitter that amplifies the power, is betrayed by her own father (whom she let go instead of killing after finding out he was responsible for the murder of her mother) and has the power literally cut out of her. Roxy flees to the mountains and ends up rescuing Tunde when a gang of women are about to kill him after he discovers that the female friend he’s been sending all his reports and photos to has been publishing them under her own name, having reported him dead. Margot’s daughter Jocelyn, who’s never had very much of the power until Allie wakes it in her, almost dies trying to take out Roxy’s brother Darrell once he has Roxy’s skein implanted in himself. Darrell thinks the women working for him–Roxy’s former gang–will respect him when they see what he’s capable of, but instead they turn on him and kill him. Roxy tries to talk Allie, the new ruler in Tatiana’s stead, out of going through with the war, but Allie is convinced that “‘the war of all against all'” is “‘the one way to put it right.'” She agrees with Roxy that the spiraling worldwide war will drive them all back to the Stone Age, but thinks that after this the women will come out on top, so it’s the necessary path.
In an attempt to convince her otherwise, Roxy advises Allie to look up the wife of the man Allie killed for raping her before she fled to become Mother Eve. Allie finds that this woman (who always clearly knew about her husband’s abuse) is running a children’s home for the New Church–Mother Eve’s church. The woman, Mrs. Montgomery-Taylor, claims they did what they had to out of love for Allie and in order to discipline her, essentially taking credit for making Mother Eve and her church what they are. Allie realizes this means that “[h]er own roots are rotten.” When she tells the voice in her head she can’t tell good from bad, the voice tells her it’s “more complicated” and that there’s “never been a right choice.” Allie decides to call on America to support them in the war, and Margot, in the wake of Jocelyn’s injuries, assents. The End of the narrative within the frame.
The book’s arc essentially explores what would happen if women instead of men were the physically stronger gender, and seems to imply that women would do the same thing to men that men have done to women–oppress them and use their physical advantage to exert dominance rather than to work for harmony. (The fact that women are doing this in response to having once been oppressed by men complicates things.) The Bessaparan regime under Tatiana becomes increasingly oppressive, at one point enacting laws that forbid men to be outside if they’re not escorted by a woman. Women are also capable of rape, able to shock a man into a condition where he’s able to consummate against his will.
Roxy’s arc specifically explores how showing mercy in this world is dangerous. When she lets her father go after finding out he was behind her mother’s murder, he returns to have her skein cut out of her, stripping her of her power. Roxy and her father actually get the last scene of the book (aside from a coda from the Book of Mother Eve), an uneasy peace established between them as Roxy mentions that she’s met a bloke (Tunde) and might have grandchildren; whether the advancement of the race is a happy ending is at this point certainly questionable. Roxy’s thread of the altercation with her family could be read as a smaller scale version of the book’s larger men-versus-women conflict, and that she still advocates to stop the war after what she’s been through is a small victory of the human spirit. (That the violence happens anyway is a noticeable contrast to the Kings’ Sleeping Beauties, in which the men pass the climactic test to not engage in more violence after already having engaged in considerable violence.)
Strewn throughout the text are images of objects discovered hundreds of years ago, reminding you that the text is historical and describing a period apparently long in the past. What the present looks like in the wake of this distant past moment is only disclosed in the letters between Naomi and Neil, when Naomi refers to the war Neil’s writing about as the “Cataclysm” and essentially reveals that men and women have fully switched roles; women are the aggressors, men the peacemakers, and “’what it means to be a woman’ is bound up with strength and not feeling fear or pain” to the extent that Naomi finds it difficult to read a portrayal of woman as the opposite.
Naomi is also skeptical of the idea that, shortly before this period, women didn’t have skeins. She also voices a kind of ironic double inverse of the book’s premise:
I feel instinctively – and I hope you do, too – that a world run by men would be more kind, more gentle, more loving and naturally nurturing. Have you thought about the evolutionary psychology of it? Men have evolved to be strong worker homestead-keepers, while women – with babies to protect from harm – have had to become aggressive and violent. The few partial patriarchies that have ever existed in human society have been very peaceful places.
Here the real Naomi Alderman seems to be cleverly addressing potential criticism of her own premise–that if women were in charge, as they become with the gaining of the power, things would be peaceful instead of escalating to war as they do in this narrative; she’s calling attention to the oversimplification of this assumption. Neil’s response:
As to whether men are naturally more peaceful and nurturing than women … that will be up to the reader to decide, I suppose. But consider this: are patriarchies peaceful because men are peaceful? Or do more peaceful societies tend to allow men to rise to the top because they place less value on the capacity for violence? Just asking the question.
They debate the historical accuracy of the book and thus thematically call into question the accuracy of our understanding of history in general, which is certainly something to think about. The narrative device of this frame is really what pushes Alderman’s novel from great to mind-blowingly great. It helps her truly show the far-reaching consequences of the Cataclysm that Neil tackles in his narrative, that it’s caused history as we know it to be repeated with the gender roles reversed, which means the new society of the present isn’t actually any better, but is, in fact, essentially the same. But Neil, firmly cast in the female role, seeking the more powerful Naomi’s approval, isn’t portrayed as a pure visionary:
Some of the worst excesses against men were never – in my opinion anyway – perpetrated against women in the time before the Cataclysm. Three or four thousand years ago, it was considered normal to cull nine in ten boy babies. …there are still places today where boy babies are routinely aborted, or have their dicks ‘curbed’. This can’t have happened to women in the time before the Cataclysm.
Except we know it did…as the final paragraphs of their exchange end the book, the device of the narrative frame comes to symbolize gender itself:
[Neil:] Gender is a shell game. What is a man? Whatever a woman isn’t. What is a woman? Whatever a man is not. Tap on it and it’s hollow. Look under the shells: it’s not there.
[Naomi:] You’ve explained to me how anything you do is framed by your gender, that the frame is as inescapable as it is nonsensical.
In the book’s final line, Naomi then goes on to suggest Neil publish the book under a woman’s name, in the service of the book reaching “the widest possible audience”–a suggestion that implicitly maintains the current system under the auspice of challenging it, which seems appropriate and familiar, coming from the dominant party in the power structure.
The conceit of the “power” itself and what it leads to is a reminder that humans are machines:
So she puts her palm over his heart and gathers the handful of lightning she has left. She sends it into him right there, in the place where human beings are made of electrical rhythm. And he stops.
As such, the conceit of the electric power that propels the narrative feels more organic to the subject matter of the power struggle between men and women–with the frame revealing that to have power is to abuse it, that this is human nature rather than a trait specific to one gender or the other–than Sleeping Beauties‘ conceit of women falling asleep and sprouting moth-like cocoons. Another important difference between these two novels is that the conceit in The Power gives the women agency to decide how to use their physical dominance over men, while in Sleeping Beauties when the women gain the capability of savaging men via their cocoons being torn off, they necessarily have to use it, stripping them of any complicating moral culpability.
The specificity of the details is in large part what pulls off The Power‘s conceit, as is the case with any conceit that stretches the bounds of realism. It’s a nice touch that the origin of the power that leads to this cataclysmic war itself has origins in war as part of the scientific explanation for it:
“Says in the Wall Street Journal this morning that a multinational group of scientists is certain now that the power is caused by an environmental build-up of nerve agent that was released during the Second World War. It’s changed the human genome. All girls born from now on will have the power – all of them.”
Although Guardian Angel had been forgotten after the Second World War, it continued to concentrate and magnify its potency in the human body. Research has now established it as the undoubted trigger, once certain concentrations had been reached, for the development of the electrostatic power in women. / Any woman who was seven years old or younger during the Second World War may have skein buds on the points of her collarbones – although not all do; it will depend on what dose of Guardian Angel was received in early childhood, and on other genetic factors. These buds can be ‘activated’ by a controlled burst of electrostatic power by a younger woman. … It is theorized that Guardian Angel merely amplified a set of genetic possibilities already present in the human genome.
It seems worth nothing that Alderman wrote this novel as part of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, through which Margaret Atwood selected Alderman as her protégé. In the novel’s acknowledgments, Alderman also thanks female sci-fi writing legends Karen Joy Fowler and the late Ursula Le Guin. She is apparently in good company.