The Power, by Naomi Alderman: A Review

[The Power, Naomi Alderman, London, Penguin Books, 2017]

I skimmed through The Power in less than a week – a quick read for me, these days. It is what I might, crudely, term a ‘cracking yarn’; a story, well written, intelligently laid out, which bravely takes a premise and runs with it, though a series of literally shocking episodes to the collapse of the old world and the rise of the new. It’s been widely lauded – called a ‘future classic’ of genre, praised by Margaret Attwood – and it is the first work of SF to win the Bailey’s Prize. I was pulled through the story from the moment I opened it, compelled to find out the consequences of the rise of The Power. Ultimately, this is a book about consequences more than it is about gender; the intended, unintended, and terminal results of the actions of individuals in and on the world.  

For those who haven’t read The Power, a quick precis: the book is bookended with a framing narrative, an email exchange between a subservient male historian and his divertingly mysandrous female colleague – who may, it is implied, have once taken him has her lover. The man, Neil Adam Armon, writes the story that we read in The Power itself; an almost blasphemous ficto-historical account of life before the Cataclysm, which Neil has the temerity to suggest might have been controlled by men – obviously, Naomi, his colleague, laughs at him for the ridiculous notion. The story that we are told focuses around four main characters – Roxy Monke, in whom the Power manifests as a response to the murder of her mother by men – Allie Montgomery-Taylor, who kills her rapist foster-father with the Power and goes on to become the religious leader Mother Eve – Tunde Edo, who is the first to film the Power in action, and who becomes a chronicler of the unfurling events – and Margot Cleary, a middle aged woman in whom the Power is awakened and with it, political success. Other people exist around them – the girls of Allie’s convent, the unhinged president of Bessapara, the women’s country, Roxy’s family, Margot’s daughter Jos – but these are our key focalizers as readers. The world in which they live may well be our own – it has YouTube, it has mobile phones, it has the same countries and placenames and vices and violences and crimes. That world is thrown into chaos when, one day, girls of about fourteen years old reveal a power to produce electricity – they can electrocute, shock, cause pain, burns and can even kill. This is called the Power, and its source is a skein, an extra organ which grows around the collarbone, and for which a number of causes are postulated throughout the book. The Power gives women what they need to rise up, to take over, to rebel; in oppressive, misogynistic regimes, but also, in less abusive societies, simply because they can. Ultimately, this leads to the Cataclysm which, several thousand years later, produced the world of the frame narrative.

To give Alderman her credit, she takes the notion of females becoming the dominant gender and tackles it without casting an overly romantic eye to her fellow women. Women are not inherently good, the story says, and no, the world would not automatically be a better place if they were in charge, because power does not see gender, and can corrupt all. By implication, neither are men inherently bad; they merely have the power, which facilitates and even directly produces, their tendency to misogyny. But I read through the book with a strange ambiguity; a growing unease that I didn’t begin to put my finger on until about a quarter of the way through, and which I am not sure I have, as yet, established all the multivariate tangents of. That ambiguity is what I’d like to explore here.

The three tangents that I have so far uncovered are as follows: the framing narrative, which is perhaps the least problematic; the lack of intersectionality, which seems at best a missed opportunity and at worst complete erasure; and the pages between 318 and 323, in which the whole thing – the force, the purpose, even the feminism of the book – is completely undermined.

One: Failed Scherezade

Framing narratives are inherently falsifying and difficult to write, let alone to write well. Historical frame narratives always, inevitably, remind me of Dinotopia. I don’t say that to be flippant; I say that because they always distance the author from the fabula, always make the content more fantastical and the named author less responsible for its oddities and vagaries. Like Dunsany with Joseph Jorkens, the author cedes responsibility to a less than reliable narrator. In our case, the narrator, Neil, may well be a good historian, but the frame narrative, simply by existing, implies that it is also possible that he is biased, revisionist, and that his story is simply that – just a story. Just a story which tells of oppression based on gender. Just a fairytale in which, for a time, women can see theirrise to power coming to fruition. 

The argument between Naomi and Neil on this revisionism is interesting because, intentionally or otherwise, it echoes the debates which are at present playing out surrounding the recovery of POC and LGBTQIA2 histories from white-, cis-, hetero-washing. And whilst we understand – I hope – that it is absolutely critical to reclaim those histories which were always there, in The Power, the value of doing so remains ambiguous; there is no clarity on the author’s views on subjugated men rewriting a past for themselves. I am unsure how to interpret the function of this frame narrative, because it makes Neil’s story both more, and less, true; and I don’t know which, if any, of the answers, offers a better moral reading. But in the end, we have to go with the convention; frame narratives lie, or, at the very minimum, they cut off the bits they don’t want their viewers to see.

This particular frame also fails in execution, mostly because the story that we are told is not mimetic to a fictionalised history – neither the realism of We Speak No Treason and The Heaven Tree, or the fantasy of Midnight Never Come and The Court of the Midnight King. It fails because the framed narrative is mimetic to our world: with its human sex-trafficking, Ayatollahs, YouTube, Syria, drug running, accents. The images which are peppered throughout the book are more successful in articulating the mystery of a vanished people, but even they fail; place names remain, South Sudan (p.34), the Post-London Village Conglomeration (p.162). The detail is too much, too specific, too retained and, crucially, too close to our own world to function believably as a fictionalised history. Particularly as a history which is supposed to be written 5000 or so years after the Cataclysm – the end of the world, the deluge. The frame narrative adds nothing positive to the bulk of the book, which would stand alone as a contemporary/near future SF thriller. Instead, it turns it into an unsuccessful, and unsubtle, attempt at a parable, with its author standing back from it, at a distance, so as not to get caught in the inevitable mucky splashback if it all goes wrong. It makes this book more clunky, the exact opposite of what it needs, because this is a book heaving under the weight of one idea (admittedly, with the many ripples that idea provokes) and wielding the hammer of feminism with about as much subtlety as a housebrick chucked through a glasshouse at the silent but wakeful time of 3am. It is hyperbolic to a fault – and this is where we come to our next, more urgent, problem.

Two: The Children of the Sun, The Children of the Earth, The Children of the Moon

I’m having a Hedwig and the Angry Inch moment here. Specifically, I’m thinking about the song ‘The Origin of Love’, which tells a similarly fictive, similarly cataclysmic story of the split of humanity into two, rather than three, genders. And though ‘The Origin of Love’ is itself not entirely representative (does it claim to be? No.), it does talk about silenced ones, about people who are not there even though they always were, about people who are feared. This is the unease that I first began to tease out of this book: in this book which is, on some overt level at least a little about gender politics, there are no queer people. There are only people with ‘chromosomal irregularities’, people ‘in whom the thing hadn’t taken right’, ‘[inquotes]deviants and abnormals[endquote]'(p.153). These people are, however, in all other ways, cis and hetero. The gender binary here is so painfully clear cut that it almost bleeds. With Jos, Margot’s daughter, there was an opportunity, potentially, to explore the effect of the skein on a character who could have been gay, or trans or nonbinary, or anything. But she is reduced to being ill, abnormal, incomplete. And whilst this incompleteness and the way she is teased for it can perhaps be read as a satire on the way that girls (all girls?) are commonly perceived to mock each other for their lack of sexual appeal (or ability to contour or whatever, because we’re so fucking shallow that our value is confined only to our ability to purchase Charlotte Tilbury), when we look at this through a Queer lens, the attribution of Jos’s condition to simply ‘sickness’ begins to look very much like something which might have preceded conversion and electro-shock therapy in some other time and place (and, sadly, in some Nows). If any book needed to be representative, it was this, but instead it spent its time swinging it’s Second Wave ironwork around like it was 1983. If anything, this makes me as angry as it does because the success of this book means that that kind of feminism – the kind that is used to bully and erase – has been validated at the expense of a feminism which is intersectional and which works with and for and alongside everyone.

Three: The End of All Things

The voice says: Listen, I’ll level with you: my optimism about the human race is not what it once was. I’m sorry it can’t be simple for you anymore.

Allie says: It’s getting dark.

The voice says: Sure is.

Allie says: Welp. I see what you’re saying. Been nice working with you.

The voice says: Likewise. See you on the other side.

Mother Eve opens her eyes. The voices in her head are gone. She knows what to do.

(p.320)

Margot says, ‘How can we stop this happening?’

They tell the Senator it has already happened.

Margot says, ‘No, how can we stop it happening again?’

There is a voice in Margot’s head. It says: You can’t get there from here.

(p.323)

Were the voice to have departed with the end of the quote from p.320, we would have been left with the idea that Allie was simply mad, and that her rise to power was the result of this madness. It is not a great idea to be left with, admittedly, because of its implicit assertion that powerful women are mad (especially as Tatiana, ruler of Bessapara, also looses her mind). But it is better than the idea that arises when we realise that the voice is now speaking to Margot instead, and with the same words that it used to encourage Allie on her way to becoming Mother Eve. If we accept, as we must, that the voice is the same voice, then we must also accept that the rise of women is not a product of their own actions, but of Machiavellian posturings at a supernatural level. The women do not rise of their own volition; they are manipulated, given tools and ideas, and set on their destructive path.

We could read the voice metaphorically, as a textual manifestation of power – the corrupting kind. But sometimes a dragon is just a dragon, and this voice is not written in a way which suggests it is anything other than a literal voice. That it moves to Margot proves that it is not a figment of Allie/Eve’s imagination: ergo, the Voice (a proper noun now) must be an entity all its own. And I cannot help but wonder, with the book’s overtly Christian symbolism and the Voice’s own reference to ‘another Prophet’, whether it is supposed to be, if not Lucifer himself, one of his many demonic acolytes.

TLDR; women in power are possessed by the Devil.

Cataclysmic Thoughts

The first issue, the frame, is as much a structural problem as it is an ethical one. But the latter flaws – erasure and demonic possession – are so thoroughly ethical and so thoroughly problematic that I cannot, in good conscience, approve of this book. I’m not telling you not to read it; it is, as ever, your choice as readers, your right to engage with the texts you choose to engage with. But you – and I – have a responsibility to do so critically – acutely, analytically, cynically – and not to jump on bandwagons because books appear, on the surface, to ascribe to the ideals we support. Do not make this book a feminist manifesto; it is not. I am not even sure it makes any claim to be.

None of this is written to suggest that Alderman is anti-feminist (I have no evidence for such a suggestion, and to make one would be harmful and accusatory); but it is written to suggest that the book itself lacks considerable nuance in dealing with the issues faced by contemporary social justice and human rights movements. I had hoped that feminism had come a long way from, and arrived at a more nuanced and inclusive place than, where it was when le Guin or Russ were at their peak. This book – and, more crucially, its success – suggest that this is not, sadly, the case. 

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