‘The power to hurt is a kind of wealth.’
All the way through reading The Power, I was thinking about a recent incident on a street in Paris. You may know the one I mean; it certainly received lots of media attention, both on- and off-line. A young woman, who was being repeatedly sexually harassed by a man finally (and quite rightly) told him where to go. The man took exception to this, first by throwing a glass ashtray at the woman; and then by hitting her and almost knocking her to the ground. The whole incident was caught on CCTV, outside a cafe busy with people, several of whom tried to intervene. Had they not been there, and had the young woman been alone, the outcome would likely have been both more violent and depressingly familiar.
It’s tempting to speculate how this little vignette would have concluded in the world Naomi Alderman describes in The Power. Alderman’s dystopian-science fiction-thriller paints a world in which young women rapidly develop the ability to deliver electric shocks, potentially strong enough to kill. They can also pass this ability onto older women who have previously not had it. Alderman gives the reader some plausible sounding science to explain how this is happening. But far more interesting to me was observing how this biological change plays out socially. As the power balance between genders shifts, and as old wrongs demand retribution, Alderman increasingly shows the reader a world in which power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Some of the most striking parts of the novel are where Alderman describes women mistreating and enacting violence against men. And what particularly stayed with me were the different reactions these scenes provoked. There was more than one occasion where I winced at a particularly graphic scene; before feeling relief that it wasn’t really happening; and finally guilt that, actually, yes, it is. The violence Alderman is describing is a reality for millions of women every day; if I’m shocked by the novel, why am I not shocked by it happening for real? This is one of many aspects of the novel that make it feel very contemporary. As the writer Margaret Atwood has commented elsewhere, ‘science fiction is really about now.’ Swap the book’s biological power for feminism, or the struggle for equal gender rights, and much of Alderman’s book becomes not fiction, but journalism.
Alderman tells her story from several different viewpoints; this makes the book engagingly international, and also provides it with a sense of urgency, especially towards the end. It’s not always successful; some parts of the narrative feel somewhat drawn out, where we arguably learnt more about a character’s background than we needed to. Alderman also seems keen to draw her different narrative strands together at the novel’s climax, which in places made it feel rushed and artificial. I would have been happy with a more ragged ending – explaining a character’s motivations isn’t always necessary – but I can understand why Alderman made those choices.
You may not agree with everything you read in The Power – I didn’t, and I’m not sure Alderman would want you to – but as a book designed to provoke thought and debate, it’s one of the best I’ve read recently. As that recent incident in Paris – and countless others like it – have shown, this is not an issue that is going to disappear any time soon.