By Victoria Hoyle
The Power — Naomi Alderman (Penguin Viking)
Of all the books that I personally shortlisted for this project The Power is the one that I find most challenging to judge and to write about. I chose it precisely because of this difficulty; I had read it before and felt decidedly mixed about it. I have loved some of Alderman’s earlier work – her debut Disobedience (2006) was one of the first books that I reviewed online – and have read her assiduously, with great pleasure. Yet this fourth novel, her breakthrough book, left me unsure and unsettled. While friends and critics turned out in numbers to praise its ingenuity and confidence, its bold engagement with the dynamics of power and gender, I hung back and sat on my immediate reaction. Which was: Yes, all those things, but… I couldn’t decisively put my finger on what the ‘but’ was; it was just there, throwing up a barrier between the book and me. At the same time, I couldn’t dismiss it; I was niggled. It stayed with me. So much so, that when it came time for creating my Clarke shortlist I knew The Power had to be on it. Whatever my personal reservations, it was clearly one of the more thought-provoking and eloquent of the submitted books. I felt I owed it a re-read, to test my first response.
It’s rare for me to re-read a book within six months; even more rare to re-read a book I didn’t love on first contact. It was a salutary experience. My problem the first time around was one part character to one part central conceit. On second reading the characters still bothered me – I just don’t believe in them, Roxy in particular – but because I already knew the lineaments of the plot they didn’t distract me so completely from the novel’s other qualities. Instead the thematic issues came more strongly to the fore, about which more below. It wasn’t a negative experience, not at all. This time around I had a much greater appreciation for Alderman’s craft, for her facility with language and the seduction of the book’s narrative voice. I like her breathless, short-sentenced style and always have; whereas Colson Whitehead is all about the comma, Alderman is all about the full stop. Because I floated over the action this time, observing from a position of foreknowledge and expectation, I found much more pleasure in the words themselves. It slipped down easy as you like; a bit wearisome towards the high-octane ending but still very lovely.
More than that I could see how my reaction to the novel – the unshakeable instinct I have to argue with it – is in some ways its best effect. It has one of those ‘rollicking’ plots that publicists love to talk about but for the purposes of the Clarke Award (and any award really) its other identity as confrontational thought experiment is the more important. It’s not completely successful in my opinion but it’s always bold. There is a lot of intellectual pleasure to be had from it: unpicking it, pushing at its knottier parts, testing how far it can justify itself. In that sense it does precisely what I want a good science fiction novel to do: it makes me work; it isn’t easy.
The book’s ‘what if’ premise is straightforward. In a world very much like ours adolescent girls suddenly develop the ability to discharge electrical currents through their hands, generated by a previously undetected organ, a ‘skein’, along their collarbone. At first it’s just the teenagers who have ‘the Power’ but soon they begin to awaken it in older women, until the vast majority of the female population has the capacity to inflict intense pain and extreme violence at will. The destabilisation of the gendered order is rapid and ferocious. Social and cultural collectives at all levels, from family to nation state, religious congregation to criminal syndicate, are forced to re-evaluate the patriarchal power dynamics that so completely underlie the government of people and the self in our world.
We witness the emergence and impact of the Power through the experiences of four characters. Allie is an abused foster-kid with a voice in her head which may be the manifestation of her survival instinct or the actual words of God. After killing her stepfather and running away from home she washes up at a convent in North America where, following the voice’s instructions, she establishes herself as Mother Eve. Initially an internet phenomenon, she rapidly becomes the world leader of a new matriarchal religion. Roxy is the illegitimate daughter of a London crime boss who first discovers the Power when her mother is murdered by a rival gang. This leads her to exact a revenge that catapults her head first into her father’s drug-dealing empire, where her superior physical strength sees her take prime position over her brothers. Tunde, our only male protagonist, is a Nigerian student who captures one of the earliest uses of the Power on his mobile phone. He sells the footage to CNN and, realising that something extraordinary is happening, embarks on a career of freelance journalism, travelling around the world as it is shaken by change. Finally, there is Margot, the only grown adult amongst the cast. While Allie, Roxy and Tunde are all teenagers (or very recently teenagers), Margot is in the middle of a political career. Although she struggles to come to terms with the implications for the future of her two daughters she also sees an opportunity to increase her political capital and embarks on a meteoric rise to power.
As the main arc of the novel unfolds around them the stories of these four protagonists follow familiar narrative grooves. There are betrayals, near death experiences, doomed love affairs. There are no real surprises but it’s certainly entertaining (to the extent that the action sometimes verges on soap opera) and there are some crunchy referents to contemporary culture. Allie’s messianic preaching spreads through social media, making it possible for her to influence audiences around the world; the same technology allows her to tap into emerging goddess theologies in the world’s first matriarchy in Bessapara, formerly Moldova, where much of the action of the latter half of the novel takes place. Margot’s campaign to become state Governor and then a Senator is predicated on voters’ preference for displays of force and threats of violence. In one of the most prescient and horrifying sections of the book she attacks her political opponent on stage; unable to control her anger, she shocks him with the Power. Although she apologises profusely the polls suggest that she will lose. Except she doesn’t. She wins in a landslide.
It turns out the voters lied… They said they respected hard work, commitment and moral courage. They said that the candidate’s opponent had lost their vote the moment she gave up on reasoned discourse and calm authority. But when they went into the voting booths in their hundreds and thousands, and tens of thousands, they’d thought, You know what, though, she’s strong. She’d show them. (p169)
The book came out in October last year, a full month before Donald Trump was elected President and only four months after Brexit, but it’s impossible not to read 2016’s (and now 2017’s) political upsets in Margot’s experience. The toxic machismo and aura of threat that hangs over Western politics is writ large here.
All this action occurs bracketed by a frame narrative, in which a male author called Neil Adam Armon (an anagram of Naomi Alderman) writes to a female author called Naomi. In their exchange Naomi expresses an oozing condescension to Neil, who is apparently grateful for a moment of her time. He has written a novel – the one we are reading – in an attempt to broaden the appeal of theories that he has previously expressed in non-fiction. We come to understand that, although contemporary to our world, this novel is set over five thousand years before the frame. It’s a historical novel in other words; or a mytho-historical novel at least. In Neil’s timeline women are and apparently have always been the dominant sex, while men are ‘more kind, more gentle, more loving and naturally nurturing.’ (p333) The purpose of his story is to question the inevitability of this dynamic, a purpose reinforced by the illustrations of artefacts that are inserted throughout the text. They hint at a pre-Power patriarchal world, which is entirely alien to Neil and Naomi’s lived experience. He imagines the events that flipped the switch on the male/female power dynamic, so that vice became versa.
As we witness riots in Dehli, uprisings in Saudi Arabia and the founding of Bessapara we are repeatedly shown scenes of women turning the tables on their male oppressors and abusers. The impact depends upon the context. Alderman’s decision to set the book largely in Moldova, which is notorious for sex trafficking, and to follow Tunde as he chases the most controversial stories, means that we are exposed to extreme expressions of change including the mutilation, rape, enslavement and murder of men. We see a muted analogue in Margot’s storyline where a female news presenter slowly gains control of the show while her male co-host is relegated to lifestyle and fashion stories. Similarly we see how Tunde’s journalism is easily and readily appropriated by a female colleague. Sexism towards men is proportionately and appropriately designed to the pre-Power expressions of sexism towards women. By Naomi and Neil’s time we are to understand that the violence of the early years has outlived its usefulness and a cultural coercion not dissimilar to our current state of affairs is thoroughly embedded.
My problems with the book begin here, with its narrow focus on how power acts on people and shapes the world. This is most evident for me in its almost complete lack of engagement with intersectionality. Switching the current of gendered power dynamics isn’t as simple as turning the hourglass and watching the sand all fall the other way. The novel only engages tangentially with how gendered experience is impacted and nuanced by race, sexuality and disability. The novel seems unconscious of how power is complicated by its unequal distribution within genders, or by white, cis, straight privilege. Tunde, who is black-African, and Allie, who is bi-racial, don’t reflect at all on how this effects their experiences of a post-Power world. Affluence and poverty are also flattened out. It isn’t clear, for example, how poor girls in Margot’s America might fare differently to her own daughters.
Similarly, there are no overt LGBTQ characters in the book. There are anomalies in how the Power exhibits. Some women don’t have a skein at all, while others – like Margot’s eldest daughter, Jocelyn – have a condition that makes it difficult or painful for them to use it. There are a minority of young men who have a muted version of it. Some readings have adopted these as analogies for variations in sexuality or transgendered identities but I don’t find this particularly convincing. First because it’s unnecessary to have analogies when you could just have LGBTQ characters; and second because this plays into a biological reading of sexuality and trans identity as a deviancy or illness that I find distasteful and offensive.
During a debate about this with a colleague it was suggested to me that any lack of intersectional awareness is a function of the frame narrative. Neil, the putative author of the historical fiction we are reading, is writing from his own experience as a (presumably) white male and so is unconscious of the omission. His own prejudices are playing out on the page. Which is an interpretation that makes sense on the level of literary devices but no sense at all thematically. If The Power is about power generically, and gendered power in particular, then these seem like major omissions.
Academic and critic Laura Tisdall has also pointed out how the book fails to consider nuances of women’s embodied experience on a practical level and how biological differences between male and female bodies matter.
In physical terms, women are not solely oppressed as a sex class because they are physically weaker than men, but because they carry, bear and often nurse children. Despite their physical inferiority to women, men in The Power still won’t have to deal with unwanted pregnancy, or pregnancy as a result of rape; they won’t have to spend nine months pregnant and then give birth; they still won’t have to take any time out from work at all to have their own biological children. This means that the nature of their oppression is not the simple flip-side of women’s oppression, but a different kind of subjugation.
We witness numerous acts of physical violence and brutality committed by women against men in the latter half of the book, many of which have direct parallels with the experiences of women pre-Power. We are introduced, for example, to the practice of ‘curbing’, a procedure whereby young boys are genitally mutilated so that they can only be sexually aroused by electrical stimulation. The equivalency to female genital mutilation (FGM) is quite clear. But there is no evidence that the strategies women develop to establish their power go beyond tit-for-tat. How, for example, might the experience of childbirth and parenting be reconfigured? How might standards of beauty change? Again, it’s possible to blame a lack of consideration on our fictional author Neil, but it’s a big burden for the frame narrative to bear.
It’s not a particularly strong frame to begin with. Its purpose is to reinforce the thought-experiment but it’s flimsy for me in several ways. To begin with I’m unconvinced by the mid-twentieth century flippancy in which sexism is expressed in the correspondence between Neil and Naomi; it’s so blatant as to be almost silly. Sexism in contemporary Western culture is corrosive because it’s coded and sub-textual and I’m unclear why Alderman would chose to write it otherwise. My bigger problem though arises from the claim that Neil makes for his text as a historical novel because there is no attempt to write historically. The sense that he is writing about an alien time, biblical in its equivalent distance to us, is very limited. You would imagine, for example, that Neil would dwell longer on the things that make this time-period distinct from his own. That he would explain more. That he would elaborate on male power and culture, given that it is the most fantastical and unbelievable element of his story. That he would be more interested in how men experienced this cataclysmic change from their perspective. As it is we get very little evidence of change between his time and this past time, other than the gender switch. The technologies, cultural practices and geo-political make-up appear the same, implying that in the event we were annihilated back to the stone age we would end up in the same place five thousand years from now. That seems both highly unlikely and desperately fatalistic.
In common with the majority of books on my personal shortlist – quite by accident – it seems to me that Alderman is ultimately writing not about gender, and not even about power, but about the possibility of change. The Power underlines that our systems of governance and socio-cultural practices are poisoned at the root by inequalities of power. It shows us is that simplistic responses to this problem will only perpetuate the rot in a different pattern. Standard rhetoric around change – if we did this rather than that, if we were strong rather than weak, if women ruled the world rather than men – is meaningless. Even the most extreme of intervention married to this logic is hopeless. And here is my final, unresolved qualm about this book: Yes, I agree, but what is the alternative? In his review Nick pointed to an article – How to build a feminist utopia – in which Alderman put forward her response to this question and yet I find no evidence of her suggestions in the novel. It’s a lack.
So I’m left angry, stimulated, confused, impassioned and frustrated by The Power. Again. Even more than the first time I feel like it’s a red flag to my bull and I just want to keep charging at it. There was a good deal of surprise amongst the shadow jury that Alderman wasn’t on the official shortlist. Even in spite of all my reservations, I certainly think it superior to several of the actual contenders. Of course, we decided to give it the sixth slot on our shadow list. It came up throughout our discussions and I was a strong advocate for including it, not because it’s perfect – none of the books are – but because it’s such a thorny creature. After two readings, much discussion and writing nearly 3000 words about it, I’m still equivocal and undecided. In his review of Azanian Bridges Paul described Wood’s book as ‘splintery’ and I think I would use the same word to finally describe The Power. It’s well and truly under my skin and sticking with me.
Victoria Hoyle is an archivist, blogger and part-time PhD student. She lives with her partner and a dog called Juno in rural North Yorkshire in the UK.