The Power by Naomi Alderman is our current Den of Geek Book Club pick.
The premise alone is transgressive: imagine a world in which young women suddenly acquire the ability to physically overpower—hurt, maim or even kill—any man. This is the setting the reader is thrust into in Naomi Alderman’s The Power, a 2016 science fiction novel in which women develop the ability to release electrical jolts from their hand, leading to them becoming the dominant gender. From there, the novel explores the potential dynamics of a matriarchal society in a story that is a must-read for fans of The Handmaid’s Tale.
Much of The Power feels like it could belong to the celebratory genre of “male tears”-style, knowingly satirical misandrist apparel and merchandise. But what if “men are cancelled” wasn’t something said by powerless women? What if the most physically-powerful people decided to cancel men, and actually had the ability to follow that statement through? What happens to all of that righteous anger if, in a short span of time, women gained the power to enforce our anger, not just scream it into the void while we watch men hurt us, repeatedly and with impunity. What if we suddenly had impunity, instead of the other way around?
In a moment where many are (falsely) claiming that women suddenly have all the power and that men are tip-toeing around us out of fear, it’s fascinating to read about a world where that actually happens—if only to see how far off it truly is from our own reality. A vision of the radical, global empowerment of women serves as not only a cautionary tale about the corrupt nature of power and the misleading shortsightedness of gender roles, but also a reminder of how far we still have to go, how deeply entrenched our ideas about gender truly are.
Though the book was clearly written well before this recent, most persistent sociopolitical moment that attempts to equalize the power imbalance that is sexual violence, The Power simultaneously feels like the perfect book to read right now, and the most difficult one. In a world where power (physical, organizational, and systemic) is shifting, the lines and norms of sexual violence are shifting, too.
The Power is not a straight up gender swap or farce. It is grounded in the reality of how our present world—with all its technology, power dynamics, and social movements—would react to a revelation and shift over time. While toxic femininity certainly emerges, toxic masculinity exists alongside it, with an added bitterness that can only come from those who once had power, but don’t any longer. Men gather on forums like Reddit and 4Chan, just as they do now, to talk about what fat ugly bitches women are, and how they’re taking over everything. Except that, in this world, there’s some credence to their ranting, as societal power shifts over the course of the ten years chronicled in the book.
The Power asks questions that deeply interrogate the gender roles and assumptions of our time. What does it mean to be a woman without the power? Or, even more rarely, a man with it? Can the power be taken by force? Who are you if you lose your power? How does physical power translate into systemic political power? Can we ever forgive men for the millennia of hurt they have caused? Will hurting them back make it right? Will anything make it right? Would men ever cede power without being forced? Is an egalitarian society possible?
It’s no surprise that the author was quite literally mentored by Margaret Atwood. Atwood’s influence, particularly from The Handmaid’s Tale and the MaddAdam trilogy, are all over the book. The framing device of a letter to a friend is reminiscent of Atwood’s Dr. Piexto from the epilogue of The Handmaid’s Tale, right down to the gendered dismissal of the story we just read. The use of artifacts, too, calls to mind Offred’s recovered cassette tape of her story. The artifacts are also a comic reminder of what role our possessions play in our lives, how confusing our current society will one day be, and the way that preconceived ideas color all of human knowledge, including the sciences.
There are key differences here, too. Whereas Handmaid’s Tale is a laser-focused tale of the necessarily narrow view of the protagonist Offred, The Power takes a more global narrative stance, showing even more breadth than Hulu’s television adaptation has so far. As the narrative shifts from one protagonist to the next (there are four here), we’re able to see the difference in how, say, Saudi Arabian or Moldovan women react to the power, versus those in the U.S. or the U.K. The geographic, cultural, and political specificity of the emergence of the power would affect different countries is a much-needed level of specificity, which speaks to women’s abilities to differentiate between situations like verbal harassment and sexual slavery, contrary to some assessments.
The Power is rich in subtext and metaphors. Like the consciousness raising circles of the 1960s and 70s, the power first blooms in young women, and then spreads from one woman to the next, as those with the power awaken something deep and secret in other women. Henceforth, all baby girls are born with it—this ability is like air to them, it has always been there. And there’s no closing Pandora’s box, no shutting this thing down once it gets going.
Much of this book serves as a litmus test on the reader’s current view of gender roles, especially the ingrained ones. Does it feel unnatural to read a male reporter described as effeminate, flirtatious, or impossible to take seriously because he was shirtless earlier? Do we chafe when a woman character says that men like to be zapped, just a little bit, in bed? Our reactions to The Power say more about us than they do about the book.
To discuss The Power with us, head over to the Den of Geek Book Club on Goodreads.