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Naomi Alderman: The Power

This novel won the Women’s Prize for Fiction for 2017. I have only read one other of the books on the shortlist, which I thought was excellent, so cannot really comment on whether this book was a worthy winner. What was interesting about its success is that it is a feminist science fiction work and no science fiction had previously won. Though it is set in the future (or, perhaps, more accurately, an alternative present) and involves events which could certainly be called futuristic, this is certainly not hardcore science fiction.

The basic premise of the novel is simple. Women, primarily young but post-pubertal women, have developed something that in the book is called a skein, which enables them to administer at will an electric shock to someone else by touching them. Many of them (though not all) can control the intensity of the shock. Its prime though not its sole function is to repel assailants, virtually always (though not entirely always) men. The power is used by individual women on individual men, primarily defensively, though in some case offensively, but also by groups of women to repel/attack groups of men. Inevitably, there is a backlash by men (and, to some degree, by those women that do not have or do not know they have the power and by those women who do not want it to be used). Also, inevitably, there is a huge change in the nature of the world we live in as a result of this power.

The book follows the stories of various individuals affected one way or another by the power and we see what is happening in the world through their eyes. There are four main individuals whom we follow, three women and one man. Allie is a mixed race English orphan who has been shunted round various families, each one worse than the last, each one abusive, culminating in a couple where the father takes pleasure in physically assaulting Allie, while his wife turns a blind eye. Roxy is the daughter of an English gangster, Bernie. Her mother was murdered by another gangster, Primrose. We later learn that this was a revenge killing because Bernie had had three of Primrose’s men killed. Margot is a mayor in a city in the United States and, during the course, of the book, becomes governor of the state and then senator. As the mother of two daughters, she is caught up in more ways than one. Tunde, the only man, is a Nigerian, who witnesses and films the first serious attack using the power and goes on to become the chronicler of the events that evolve.

Alderman could have taken a simplistic approach and basically decreed that women are all good and men are all bad, and also determined that men fully deserved what was coming to them, after thousands of years of violence towards women. While there is undoubtedly a certain element of this in her book, she is too good a writer to fall into that trap. Once they get the power, many women behave almost as badly as men, particularly in using men as sexual toys. Some of the women opt out of the power (if they can – it is not straightforward) and some either do not have it or are not aware that they have it, particularly the older women. A few men, particularly those that are more effeminate, also get it.

The result of the women getting this power is that women subsequently get political and even military power. The Saudis, who perhaps have most to lose if women gain power, fight back, for some reason, in Northern Moldova and a new state, on the Moldovan-Russian border is created, with a woman as head of state. She becomes as vicious towards men, perhaps more so, as the Saudis are towards women.

The backlash is interesting. As mentioned, the Saudis do fight back but the other form of fighting back seems to be very limited and is mainly police actions rather than full-scale military attacks, using bombs, aircraft and the like. The women in power naturally realise that they can make do with a limited number of men for procreation while the men perhaps realise they need women more than the women need men. The nuns, not surprisingly, blame it on the devil. Men form men groups and commit localised terrorist acts. Some – quite a few, in fact, – get a sexual thrill when their women give them a mild shock.

The main plot line revolves around Allie who becomes a sort of spiritual leader for the women, aided by Roxy, while Margot seems to represent the US in a way that can only be described as dirty politics. Tunde gets caught up with both Allie and Roxy. The main development is the conflict between the women’s state in Northern Moldova and the Saudis, which clearly massively escalates. Drug dealing also comes into it.

The book has a frame. The book starts with an exchange of letters between a man called Neil Adam Armon (an obvious anagram of Naomi Alderman), who is a historian and author of this book, and a writer called Naomi. Neil is writing from the Men Writers’ Association (Alderman’s little joke, as we now have Women Writers’ Associations but probably not men’s ones). He is sending Naomi a copy of this book. As we learn at the end, when the exchange continues, Neil and Naomi are living some two to three thousand years in the future and he is writing an unorthodox view of the past. The orthodox view is that men are kind and gentle and women more aggressive and this has always been the case. As Naomi says this ‘world run by men’ you’ve been talking about. Surely a kinder, more caring and – dare I say it? – more sexy world than the one we live in. This conflicts with a view expressed by one of the women in the story who says 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, a probably fairly accurate view.

One can argue, and doubtless many will, that Alderman’s view of what would happen of women were to discover this power, might not turn out as she suggests. I feel the backlash would have been greater, for example. Nevertheless, she has chosen to present one possible outcome, an outcome which is certainly a possibility. Her point, of course, is that men are violent and controlling (not all, but far too many) but that, given the power, many women would be, too, not least, as happens in this novel, as a form of revenge. Clearly, this is an excellent novel which both tells an interesting story and raises a host of valid points about violence, about what we used to call the battle of the sexes but probably call the gender wars nowadays, about the differences between the two sexes and about power and its abuses.

Publishing history

First published 2016 by Viking