The Power by Naomi Alderman (Website, Twitter)
Genre: speculative fiction
Setting: everywhere, possibly in the near future
I read it as a: paperback
Source: my own collection
Length: 341 pp
Published by: Viking (27 Oct 2017)
Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars
TL;DR version: girls are now born with the ability to conduct electricity (specifically, they can electrocute people) because of a weird skein under their collar bones, and the menz are scared shitless.
In an unspecified time which feels like the near future, girls are suddenly born with a ‘skein’ under their collar bones which allows them to electrocute people. They can turn on this ability in older women as well. The Power follows four young people through their initial discovery of these skeins and the ways in which they adapt to them. One is Roxy, a tough girl from London whose family is feared for running an organized crime operation. Allie/Mother Eve is an abused foster child from the east coast who takes the power from her skein to escape and set up a new life for herself. Jocelyn is the daughter of an up and coming political superstar in the midwest, and her skein seems to be broken. Tunde is an aimless young man from Nigeria who finds his path as a reporter. The ways each of their lives intermingle relay the genesis of the skeins and their impact upon all of human society.
First, things I liked.
If I had a skein that let me zap people, I can’t honestly say I would use it for good. I can think of a fair few men who could use a good electrocution. But you know? If (mainly white) men overall, and throughout history, weren’t such rapey, abusive dicks bent on systematic oppression of women and minorities (see plot line with Roxy’s brother and dad), I wouldn’t even think about what I could do with the ability to electrocute people. Do better, menz.
I liked that the book touched on beneficial ways women could use their skeins. It was clear that some women were more skilled than others in how they could use their power – some could only use it to hurt, but others could use it to try to help or heal people. Some girls were skilled and powerful enough to awaken the power in older women who had not been born with a skein. Others healed the sick or injured.
I thought it was interesting, though not at all surprising, to consider that religious exploitation was a thing regardless of whether it was women in charge or men. It seems that religion will always find a way to take advantage of people who are afraid or feel lost or whatever it is that makes them flock in their thousands to weird evangelical circus-like performances and throw their money at it. Faith healers are such a crock, whether in reality or in spec fic, and they prey upon people who are desperate in some way or other. And really, religion is a crock as well. Logic is better than magical thinking, and taking active steps to fix a problem in society is more effective than trying to pray it away.
Also, I did like that this dystopian novel gave something to women rather than taking something away and exploring the fallout from that. In The Handmaid’s Tale and Red Clocks, women no longer have any reproductive rights. In The Unit, older people are sent to a nursing home type of setting to await the days when their organs will be needed for people who are considered young and relevant still. In Vox, women’s voices are taken away in that they are only permitted to speak 100 words a day. So many other examples portray a world in which something vital is taken away from women. So it is interesting to read a book where something is given to them for once.
Now, things I didn’t care for.
The novel at times felt more like a research project than a book. It should come as a surprise to absolutely no one that power and authority in the world tends to come from the ability to hurt other people. Ask any woman and I can almost guarantee that she has at least once in her life been afraid of a man and what he would do to her. So kind of the whole premise, while an interesting thought experiment, it also doesn’t really ask any new or profound questions. It seems to be trying to answer questions that have been posed and explored forever in other speculative fiction novels, movies, TV shows…
The book eventually got around to Men’s Rights movements. I found myself snorting at these scenes every time they came up. Of course, my reading is influenced by actual history and I couldn’t quite separate that from the book, which is no fault of Alderman’s. But a Men’s Rights movement was as ridiculous to me as a Straight Pride parade – do men think women’s rights are as preposterous as I felt the men’s rights were in this? Again, if the menfolk would quit trying to control and suppress everyone, there would be no need for men’s OR women’s rights movements. We could all just be equal. Which seems to scare men like Moscow Mitch absolutely shitless.
The biggest drawback for me was that the plot and character development were really…not great. Most of the characters were flat, had little actual development, and I didn’t give a crap about any single one of them. Well, I kind of cared what happened to Jocelyn a little bit, and Tunde was an interesting perspective. But in general, even they were mostly static, and I don’t think the novel needed ALL of the POV characters to be POV characters. Most of them weren’t really all that interesting, or at least I didn’t think so. I think it would have been more interesting if the novel had been told from the POV of just one person. All the international politics and women going insane seemed like it was contrived and hard for Alderman to pull off convincingly.
I actually quite liked this book and don’t mean to sound as if I didn’t, but I think it had a lot of problems.