This has been quite a year for dystopian books. Even older books like 1984 and It Can’t Happen Here have become bestsellers, and one of the classic feminist dystopian novels, The Handmaid’s Tale, not only returned to the bestseller list but also inspired an extremely popular Hulu television series. A new speculative fiction book, The Power, by Naomi Alderman, is a different kind of dystopian book, though it shares some concerns with the more famous The Handmaid’s Tale.
In The Power, some teenage girls discover that they have the ability to produce electricity in their bodies and channel it through their hands, giving people electrical shocks that can torture or maim, or even kill. That’s a startling beginning, but when all teenage girls discover they have this power, and older women have it, too, the world is in for a major change.
If patriarchal society is based on the greater physical power of men as compared to women, how can it possibly last when women become more physically powerful?
Some of the things that happen are predictable: men no longer rape women, women and girls who have been abused by men in the past are able to take their revenge. But what happens to religion? If you have entire religions based on the notion of a God the Father, when mothers become more powerful than fathers, that concept has to change as well, with concomitant shocks running through the whole structure of religion. What happens to the little details of everyday life, even things like who gets to read which stories on the evening news?
The story is told through the voices of four people, three women and one man who’s witnessing the changes in society as a result of women’s new abilities. One woman, an abused foster child, reinvents herself as a goddess on earth; another, the daughter of a mobster, finds herself capable of greater shocks than anyone else, and takes full advantage of this; the third, an ambitious politician, has to decide whether to hold back on the use of her electrical power or use it to advance her career.
The author has no illusions about how much better women are inherently than men. She’s not creating a utopia where the world is ruled by saner, more emotionally stable, more nurturing women. Giving one gender power over the other leads to all the corruptions of unbalanced power, nor are men willing to give up their traditional roles as leaders of society’s institutions without a fight.
Like the best dystopian novels, The Power makes you look at the world around you with new eyes, and makes you think about things you took for granted.