Some suggest that science fiction is a woman’s genre. In its purest form, sci-fi reimagines the structures of society and, in the process, creates a topsy-turvy fairground mirror with devastating implications for the real world it reflects. From Suzanne Collins to Margaret Atwood, and right back to Mary Shelley, women writers have always questioned the prevailing ideas of their day by considering the near future.
It is hardly surprising, then, that Naomi Alderman’s latest novel is part of this grand tradition, not least because Atwood happens to be her mentor. The Power reminds us that questions about our own society can be asked and answered by imagining a totally different reality.
The novel is based on a simple concept: what would happen if every woman in the world acquired the ability to give electric shocks – some harmless, some fatal – from her fingertips? From that spark, everything changes, as women begin to realise that they are now stronger than men.
The Power is Alderman’s fourth literary novel, but she has also written a Doctor Who tie-in book (Borrowed Time) and is the lead writer on the exercise app ‘Zombies, Run!’. Her literary fiction has covered Orthodox Judaism, Oxford undergraduates, and even the origins of Christianity. This sweeping oeuvre is not only a demonstration of Alderman’s active imagination, but a testament to her wide-ranging abilities.
This latest offering, however, marks a new stage in the author’s career. Her distinctive prose remains as clear and engaging as it was since her first novel, Disobedience; the narrative voice has a detached, almost amused tone, which reminds one incongruously of Jane Austen. Yet in The Power, this style reaches its most complex, presenting scenes of violence and revolution just as adeptly as individual thought and social commentary.
Indeed, the story is unflinching. Details of the terrible things humans do to each other fill the pages from chapter one. Ultimately this novel must confront a difficult question: would women abuse their physical power the same way men have for millennia? Alderman posits that they would, and explores the consequences of that misuse through the experiences of four central characters.
Roxy, the daughter of a British gangster, is the first we meet. Her story is central to the structure: each high and low of the change affects her, and she survives it all, ultimately the strongest out of everyone around her. Alderman originally drafted the novel with an early version of Roxy as its only main character, but the other three perspectives are just as crucial. Tunde, a Nigerian journalist, is especially important. His attitude towards the emergence of the power mimics Wordsworth’s thoughts on the French Revolution in The Prelude, and Alderman cannot resist slipping in those immortal “very heaven” lines. Revolution, she seems to be telling her reader, always starts with hope, and often ends in disaster.
Allie, a girl who escapes her abusive foster father and quickly establishes herself as the spiritual leader of this new age, is difficult to fathom. One is left with more questions than answers about her by the end, especially about the disembodied voice which guides her rise to importance. If The Power becomes a TV drama series – which seems likely, given that it has already attracted several offers of adaptation – Allie’s narrative could be further developed on screen.
More straightforward is Margot, an American politician who the discerning listener will notice sounds rather a lot like Hillary Clinton in The Power’s audio book. Her progression from insignificant mayor to waiting in the wings of the White House illustrates how the acquisition of power, both physical and political, is not without its moral compromises.
Together this selection of people expands the novel’s scope to an international setting. We see the repercussions of the power in Moldova, America, and Saudi Arabia as it becomes a global phenomenon. As it grows, Alderman gently shifts the tone from excitement to unease.
A series of letters which bookend the novel proper deepen the disquieting effect. Thousands of years after women gain the power to electrocute, Neil Adam Armon writes from the ‘Mens Writers Association’ to the alternative reality version of Naomi Alderman. This seems in the style of Mary Shelley, whose framing device in The Last Man suggests that the novel is a history of how the world ends. The Power encourages us to read it as though Neil has pieced together this account of a cataclysmic shift in human relations from historical artefacts, many of them recognisable as objects which we have today.
This disturbing thought increases the nervous tension which the book inflicts on its reader as you hurtle towards the end. Some parts are truly hard to read. It is not a joy in any context to read a scene in which a refugee camp is attacked by soldiers, let alone at a time when it has such stark resonance. All this, however, is necessary to process the ideas at the novel’s core. Power, Alderman shows us, can always be misused, no matter who holds it.
By Alys Key
The Power, Naomi Alderman, Viking (Penguin), 2016, £12.99