In the periphery of The Power, a series of seemingly meaningless scenes shine an ultra-bright light on the core concerns of Naomi Alderman’s astonishing new novel. These blink-and-you-might-miss-’em moments lay bare the working relationship between a pair of daytime television presenters whose respective roles reflect the devastating developments depicted in greater detail in the rest of the text.
Tom and Kristen are ineffably familiar figures, at first—as is their dynamic as a duo. The former is a moderately handsome middle-aged man who wears expensive suits and steers the show’s serious segments; the latter is an improbably beautiful young woman dressed not to impress so much as to suggest whose most significant responsibility is to introduce the weather on the ones. In short, Tom is the host with the most, and Kristen is his sexy sidekick. But when man’s dominion over the wider world wanes, the parts our presenters have played to date are recast.
Unwilling to accept this essential reversal, Tom has a live-on-the-telly tantrum. He’s promptly replaced by Matt, a great guy, apparently, who’s “a good ten years younger than Kristen.” Matt laughs attractively and silently suffers “a gentle hand on his knee” while Kristen—now in less clingy clothes and finally wearing the glasses she’s needed all these years, if only to give her gravitas—downright dominates their conversations.
The Power isn’t about any of these people, particularly, but their changing situation effectively illustrates the revolution that results from the discovery of an organ of electricity in women.
To start with, there were confident faces on the TV, spokespeople from the CDC saying it was a virus, not very severe, most of the people recovered fine, and it just looked like young girls were electrocuting people with their hands. We all know that’s impossible, right, that’s crazy—the news anchors laughed so hard they cracked their makeup.
Crazy as the idea may be, it seems to be real. The first few viral videos of the eponymous power in practice are followed by hundreds and then thousands and then hundreds of thousands of others that aren’t so easily explained away. The aforementioned organ of electricity—”a strip of striated muscle [named] the skein for its twisted strands”—isn’t even exceptional, it appears. Every girl in the world has it, or will have it, and it can be “woken” in every older woman.
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 with have the power—all of them. And they’ll keep it throughout life, just like the older women do if it’s woken up in them. It’s too late now to try to cure it; we need new ideas.
Mayor Margot Cleary, one of The Power‘s four principle perspectives, thinks she might have them. She starts a private military corporation—ostensibly to train women in the ways of using their skeins sensitively, but if she so happens to end up with an army afterwards, then so much the better. An army might be hella handy in the coming months, especially if the men who see the power as a problem do what some of them are threatening to and declare war on women.
All over the world people are going crazy about this thing, but a few people always look at anything and go, ‘Where’s the profit in this, and where’s the advantage?’
One thing’s certain after the sparring matches and practice bouts. Roxy’s got a lot of it. Not just more than average, more than any of the other girls they can find to practise with her.
Roxy Monke, the daughter of an infamous family man, might just have more power than anyone else. Sadly, it’s still not enough to stop one of her father’s many enemies from murdering her mother. This trauma, together with her supernatural talents, leads to her helping out the Monke mob she’d been kept at a distance from formerly—initially in an isolated quest for revenge, but before long in a more widespread sense.
In advance of her involvement in the family business proper, however, Roxy also acts as an adviser to Allie, aka Mother Eve. Having gone on the run after using her power to protect herself from her abusive foster father, Allie has rechristened herself the representative of a new God:
If the world didn’t need shaking up, why would this power have come alive now?
Allie thinks, God is telling the world that there is to be a new order. That the old way is overturned. The old centuries are done. Just as Jesus told the people of Israel that God’s desires had changed, the time of the Gospels is over and there must be a new doctrine.
The voice says: There is a need for a prophet in the land.
Allie thinks, But who?
The voice says: Just try it on for size, honey.
The voice Allie hears in her head “always did have a Biblical way with it,” so maybe it is God that’s talking to her. Or maybe something else is. In any event, the new faith Allie preaches as Mother Eve spreads like wildfire among the women of the world, “stoked by the existence of the power, by anonymous forums and by the imagination of young people, which are now what they have always been and ever shall be.”
One of those young people, Tunde, sees the holy war hatching on the horizon as his big break—he thinks of it as “his war, his revolution, his history. Right here, hanging off the tree for anyone to pick”—and as one of the first folks to capture the carnage on camera, he’s well positioned to make the most of it. He spends the money he makes selling the stories he breaks traveling the world in pursuit of the power and the progress its appearance precedes, crossing paths in the process with Allie et. al.
Of The Power‘s protagonists, Tunde is by far the most transparent in terms of the part he must play in Alderman’s thrilling and chilling future history: he serves to stitch together the narrative’s disparate strands, to help its geographically expansive cast cohere, and to showcase the text’s sweeping setting. That even he—a cipher, essentially—becomes a character we care about over the course of the story, a character we root for and toot for in times of tragedy and triumph, goes to show just how heavily the author invests in depth and development. And if the result of Alderman’s efforts is impressive in Tunde’s relatively tepid tale, it’s incredible, not to mention tremendously affecting, when applied to The Power‘s less predictable perspectives.
Truth be told, though, this novel needed someone like Tunde, because it’s somewhat slow to start. The first half is eventful enough, no question—it’s positively action-packed, in fact—and it allows Alderman ample opportunity to shrewdly introduce the people and the plot points that come into play later. The story as a whole takes rather a long time to come together, however. It’s only when The Power‘s characters begin to commingle that Alderman explains the game she’s playing.
And it’s a truly great game—more, if I may, like chess than checkers, in that it’s not just strategic, it’s sneaky. You see, The Power isn’t what it appears to be. To be sure, it looks like a book about a world in which women have the edge over men… but it’s not, not really. The gender bending is an important element of the text’s premise, yes, but Alderman is much more interested in exploring power: how decent people come by it, and are, of course, corrupted by it—like the female television presenter from the interstitials we touched on earlier, who goes from being exploited by men to exploiting them herself.
Superficially, The Power is a study of what changes when the balance of power is inverted, but beneath its speculative surface, it reveals itself to be an investigation into what doesn’t change, and why. It’s powerful, paradigm-shifting stuff, well and truly deserving of the Women’s Prize for Fiction it won following The Power‘s publication in the UK. That it was the product of a protégé program which saw Alderman paired with the author of The Handmaid’s Tale for a year of “one-to-one creative exchange” is not shocking. What is is that it’s a better Margaret Atwood book than anything Margaret Atwood has herself written in recent memory.
The Power is available from Little, Brown and Company in the US and from Penguin Books in the UK.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He lives with about a bazillion books, his better half and a certain sleekit wee beastie in the central belt of bonnie Scotland.