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The Power by Naomi Alderman

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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-powerThe Power, Naomi Alderman, Viking (Penguin), 2016, £12.99

London Literature Festival, Southbank Centre

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An evening at the Southbank Centre is always going to be enlightening and entertaining – this is never more true than during the London Literature Festival, which runs 5 – 16 October. This year, it featured events with Margaret Atwood, Louis Theroux, Richard Dawkins, Iraqi science fiction and a reading of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine with Christopher Eccleston, all focusing on the theme of ‘Living In Future Times’.


H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine reading with Christopher Eccleston, Nikki Amuka-Bird and Emma Hamilton, 5 October

To mark the opening of The London Literature Festival there was a reading of H. G. Wells’ early science fiction classic, The Time Machine. Acclaimed actors Christopher Eccleston, Emma Hamilton and Nikki Amuka-Bird, were accompanied by internationally renowned organist James McVinnie, playing the famous Royal Festival Hall organ, to give a eerie and marvellously performed reading.

Time travel has long been one of the great tropes of science fiction, but it was this 1895 novella that lodged the concept firmly in the public imagination, popularising the idea that one might travel through time much as we travel through space.

H. G. Wells’ novel is a dystopian adventure and a political commentary of late Victorian England, offering a vision and indeed a warning of a troubled future. Nevertheless, the reading was thoroughly enjoyable, and brimming with an insight into how, in our own unsettled times, the power of storytelling can connect us all.

Nikki Amuka-Bird, Emma Hamilton, Christopher Eccleston will perform a live reading of The Time Machine, Wed 5 Oct in Royal Festival Hall to open Southbank Centre's 10th London Literature Festival. Credit Helen Maybanks
Photo by Helen Maybanks

Margaret Atwood in conversation with Short Story Competition 2016 judge, Erica Wagner, on her retelling of The Tempest, named Hag-Seed, 6 October

Also in attendance at the festival was the Booker prize-winning Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood, who was in discussion with author, critic and our very own Short Story Competition 2016 judge Erica Wagner. The discussion was centred around Atwood’s new novel Hag-Seed; a characteristically skewed re-imagining of The Tempest which is filled with surprises and wonders all of its own. She deftly shows how the tales of Shakespeare are universal even now and adds her own magic and twist of fun to this retelling. Atwood is an author that presents her work with warmth and humour; and that evening was no exception; her and Erica at one point were wholeheartedly rapping out a section of the book!

During the talk, Atwood also spoke of her participation in the project, Future Library. a project set up by Scottish perceptual artist Katie Paterson. Over the next 100 years, 99 more authors – one a year – will contribute a text to the library. In 2114, the 1,000 trees planted last summer in the Nordmarka will be cut down and all the texts made public. The preservation of the written word symbolises how must all, even in times of fear and darkness, preserve our souls. “I am sending a manuscript into time,” notes the author, in a short piece written for the event. “Will any human beings be waiting there to receive it? Will there be a ‘Norway’? Will there be a ‘forest’? Will there be a ‘library’? How strange it is to think of my own voice – silent by then for a long time – suddenly being awakened, after 100 years. What is the first thing that voice will say as a not-yet-embodied hand draws it out of its container and opens it to the first page? I picture this encounter – between my text and the so-far nonexistent reader – as being a little like the red-painted hand print I once saw on the wall of a Mexican cave that had been sealed for over three centuries. Who now can decipher its exact meaning? But its general meaning was universal: any human being could read it. It said: ‘Greetings. I was here.’”

While listening to Atwood speak, one was reminded how there is a strange comfort in consuming her dystopian stories. They are reminders, despite reflecting a dire present, that it’s never too late for us. This inherent hope at least allows people to imagine a better future- maybe they are a kind of litany for survival, that humanity will continue despite our best efforts to destroy ourselves.

Photo: Pete Woodhead
Photo by Pete Woodhead

Screening of Louis Theroux’s ‘My Scientology Movie’ and Q&A with Louis Theroux, Adam Buxton and John Dower, 10 October

Following this year’s London Literature Festival theme ‘Living In Future Times’, a screening of Louis Theroux’s ‘My Scientology Movie’, exploring the religion based on a science-fiction writer’s work, kicked off the second week of the festival. A relatively young audience filtered into the stalls, balcony and boxes of the Royal Festival Hall. A screen hangs; a poster of ‘My Scientology Movie’ by Louis Theroux is projected onto it, complimented by an instantly-recognisable illustration of Theroux.

The lights dim and Adam Buxton walks on-stage to introduce the evening. The film starts, opening with a tweet by Louis Theroux:

‘Open call to any #Scientologists out there. I would love to speak to you for a documentary I am working on. About Scientology.’

The film continues with this borderline sarcastic tone, a tone very true to Theroux’s entertaining and lighthearted documentaries in the early days of ‘Weird Weekends’. Later, in the Q&A, director John Dower explains this was one of their main aims: to give the documentary that ‘early Louis’ feel.

One of the main reasons Dower and Theroux decided to make the documentary rather humorous was because another film on scientology, Alex Gibney’s ‘Going Clear’, came out whilst they were filming. Gibney’s documentary was highly informative and serious, so they decided ‘My Scientology Movie’ had to contrast this.

This is something they certainly achieved. The documentary is structured around actors who play Tom Cruise, David Miscavige and other members of scientology. Marty Rathbun (former Senior Executive of the Church of Scientology) directs a mix of scientology-based workshops, improvisations and the re-enactment of real-life footage, allowing him to visually express what he experienced during his time at the church, both to Theroux and the viewers.

As a whole, the evening was informative, daring, but was also scattered with entertaining moments which bring a classic ‘Louis’ humanity to a very serious subject.

Photo: Pete Woodhead
Photo by Pete Woodhead

#LLF’s 10th Birthday Event, 10 October

Up in the Weston Roof Pavilion, poets and literature lovers alike met to celebrate Southbank Centre London Literature Festival’s 10th anniversary. The event was attended by John Agard amongst others. and was centred around speeches by Senior Programmer, Literature and Spoken Word Ted Hodgkinson and Artistic Director Jude Kelly. They spoke about the futuristic, science fiction theme of this year’s festival, reviewed some of the events which had taken place so far and thanked the staff for their hard work. Behind the backdrop of the London Eye, the OXO tower and the other glistening lights of the southbank’s skyline, Southbank Centre staff and LLF guests cheered, celebrating the fine production of one of London’s most important events.

To read more on this year’s London Literature Festival, read our interview with Senior Programmer, Literature and Spoken Word Ted Hodgkinson.

Photo: Abi Lofthouse
Photos by Abi Lofthouse

 

By Lucy Binnersley and Abi Lofthouse


Artwork by Harriet Cheney, Southbank Centre

‘Living in Future Times’
Southbank Centre
5 – 16 October 2016