Thoughts on The Power by Naomi Alderman
The Power is a story set in a frame. A man, 5,000 years in the future, pitches this book as a way to help readers visualize history and events that occurred before “The Cataclysm.” His publisher is skeptical that any story suggesting men might have once subjugated women will sell or be read as anything but “men’s literature” or smut. However, the text of this “author’s” story is included, leaving the reader to decide for herself.
This book is a glorious revenge fantasy, which I, for one, particularly appreciated on the heels of Judge Kavanaugh’s hearing and, let’s say, the entirety of recorded history. In The Power, women spontaneously develop the ability to wield electrostatic power. It starts with young women, but the young can awaken it by passing a charge to another woman’s skein, the organ governing this sense. Soon, women around the world are exacting righteous retribution and, in the case of one of our protagonists, Mother Eve, starting religions to usher in the new world order.
Narratives Can Change Us
One of my favorite scenes in The Power was when women in Saudi Arabia realized that they were no longer beholden to the cruel, archaic power structures that had long kept them prisoners in their own homes, with fathers, sons, and husbands their wardens. En masse, the women take to the streets. Armed police advance on them, but what gun can stop the fury of thousands of women holding electricity in their fingertips? Soon, the women begin blowing up cars and rioting in earnest, their tone jubilant.
Of course, women make up half the people on the planet. I read this scene and thought, if women truly exercised their solidarity, could we be stopped? If the whole of Riyadh’s female population today, for example, said we refuse to accept this any longer, could they force a change? Could women in the United States, in a surge of power, prevent another rapist and man who believes women shouldn’t be able to decide what to do with their own bodies from becoming a Supreme Court justice? Just maybe.
Reading The Power made me think about the stories we tell ourselves and the way we frame the world. Adlerman is not the first writer to posit that how we see ourselves in the world can change reality. Another book, and a book I love, is Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin. In Native Tongue, women work together to develop their own language, naming new concepts and creating power in doing so. Although the women in the story are palpably oppressed by the men in their family, deploying their new language tips the balance of power. Soon, the men cannot control women and the power they have unleashed.
Similarly, I thought of a part of the Sandman comics in which Dream, in the form of a cat, tells another feline that cats once ruled the world, saying “We were larger then, and this whole world was created for our pleasure. We roamed it as we would, taking what we wanted.” However, a human pet, in a flash of inspiration, dreamed that the world could be different. He shared the dream with others and “They dreamed … and the next day, things changed.” Humans became the dominant species.
The Power is women’s version of that dream. Perhaps if we all dream the same dream, one day we, too, will wake to find everything changed.
But Are Women People?
The second half of the book, for me, was not so much a revenge fantasy as a revenge nightmare. Women, mad with power, start paramilitary camps that train young women to use power as soldiers. A European president institutes laws stipulating that men must have a female guardian at all times, men must carry documentation, and men can be sent to work camps for too much surly backtalk. We even witness the graphic rape of a man. That, is, we witness a gang of women raping a man.
The tale’s atrocities ramp up slowly, so when at last a man is ordered (by a woman in power) to lick up spilled alcohol pooled amid shards of glass, you almost wonder how we got here. Almost. In this scene, older women spur on the terror, shouting that men had done much worse in their time—this is no less than they deserve.
What strikes me is how easy it is to see the horror in male refugees, men’s suffering. Really, it’s the crux of the whole book: how simple it is to empathize with men, how easy it is to identify wrongs committed in the name of power and of the status quo are, indeed, wrongs, when applied to men.
It reminds me that society generally sees men as people and women as some other class of human. You know, like a woman writer, or a woman chef, or a “girl boss.” Maybe even a female doctor. We don’t read woman into these neutral words. Nothing about “boss” is inherently male. Except millennia of patriarchy and male power have taught us that, yes, boss is a male job. Men do it. The Power gives us 5,000 years of the opposite. How foolish, the fictional publisher thinks, to see men running gangs and committing violence against women. Women, in this story, are the ones with the right to humanity.
It’s easy to see the horror in men confined to their homes or in (women) soldiers raping (men) victims. How terrifying! But the reality is that this is how women in the real world live now. Women today are afraid to go out at night. Women today, in some countries, can’t leave the house without a male to escort them. Women today are raped (by men) and are the victims (of men’s) violence.
All this happens today, yet we are either too close to it or too fatigued to be shocked by it.
At the end of The Power, we return to the discussion between “author” and “publisher.” The author states, “Three or four thousand years ago, it was considered normal to cull nine in ten boy babies. Fuck, there are still places today where boy babies are routinely aborted, or have their dicks ‘curbed.’ This can’t have happened to women in the time before the Cataclysm.” He goes on to say that “the world is the way it is now because of five thousand years of ingrained structures of power based on darker times when things were much more violent … but we don’t have to act that way now.”
What if we didn’t act that way now?
What if women seized the power of solidarity? What if we dreamed the world into existence? What if the world changed overnight?