Naomi Alderman’s provocative new book, The Power, is more simply described without the definite article. Power, and how it infuses human relationships, particularly gender relationships, hums though this book like an electric current. And just like that current, it can turn fearsome and deadly in an instant.
The Power is an acknowledged heir to Margaret Atwood’s recently-rediscovered The Handmaid’s Tale, right down to its bright red cover. Atwood’s dystopian feminist novel imagines a world where a neo-Puritan patriarchy has descended on America. Alderman reverses the dynamic, depicting a future where young women have suddenly developed a new muscle, called a skein, that allows them to deliver an electric charge through their bodies. Suddenly women have the kind of physical dominance that men have historically presumed and the effects ripple through .
Four characters provide different windows on the world created by the newly electrified women (and rattled men). Roxy is the daughter of a London crime boss who avenges her mother’s death and powers her way to become the head of the family business, now as the leader of a cartel smuggling Glitter, a drug that enhances the electrical capacity of women. Tunde is a Nigerian man who chronicles the rising tide of empowered women and the male resistance. Margot is a US politician who uses the power like a sheathed knife, rising to the top circles of the government.
Allie, an orphaned Southern girl, takes, for my money, the most interesting journey. Gifted with healing abilities and guided by an ambivalent mystical voice, Allie develops an alter ego as Mother Eve, a charismatic religious figure who reinterprets Christian theology from a female perspective.
This Eve speaks in the language of the Bible but it is a Scripture that turns old patriarchal readings inside out. For this Eve, the tree is not an Edenic image of women’s downfall, but the symbol of The Power itself, branching upward, “the outline of a living thing straining outward, sending its fine tendrils a little further, and a little further yet.” (3) When Allie is installed as an advisor to the queen of a woman-dominated breakaway state in Moldova, she occupies a chapel filled with enameled paintings of female saints and Eve herself “receiving the message from the Heavens and extending her hand filled with lightning.” (252)
Eve knows the old stories about kings taking daughters to slave in the palace. (Samuel’s warning to Israel about the dangers of a king from 1 Samuel 8 serve as a preface to the book.) But Eve uses the stories to praise female leadership. But then Eve/Allie struggles with dark temptations as she assumes ever more exalted status.
Like Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, this book has a frame that adds another dimension to the read. The Power begins and ends with an exchange of letters between a male author seeking the advice of more connected and experienced writer named Naomi. Neil Adam Armon (an anagram of Naomi Alderman) has written a fictionalized history of the period right before The Cataclysm, a event in the distant path that led to the world of female dominance. This history constitutes the bulk of The Power and it is fascinating to see the woman writer push back agains a history that challenges her preferred narrative.
Alderman develops this thought experiment with great thoroughness. The Power is not a fantasy of wish fulfillment nor does she describe a utopia. The ripple effects in religion, in politics, in relationships, and in culture are varied and unpredictable. Women struggle to understand how to use this new power, how to reveal it, how to control it, how to hide it. Men conform, submit, resist, and curdle. It’s not a pretty sight.
But in the end the book does what all good science fiction does—it puts our own time in sharp relief and forces us to grapple with the unsaid and the un-dealt-with. The effect of The Power is to ask its reading audience, men and women, to consider what is essential and what is merely a distortion caused by power relationships. In an era when the nakedness of power and retrograde gender relationships are both celebrated and resisted in novel ways, this book, with all its brutality, gets your attention. It warns that if we don’t find ways to see one another, in all our potency and vulnerability, we will always be playing with the third rail—the one that has the power to kill.
As a pastor, I am also brought back to the role that feminist biblical interpretation has played in my own traning. Much of Mother Eve’s reimagining of religion finds its roots in work done in the 70s and 80s in Christian seminaries. Like the feminist scholars who helped form me, Eve challenges what counts as orthodoxy and questions whether the male language and imagery of the tradition is essential or merely patriarchal accretion.
FOOTNOTE – Alderman is also behind the popular fitness app “Zombies, Run!” I’ve been using this for the past couple of years to get me motivated. She’s a great storyteller in that format, too, and there’s even an episode that includes Margaret Atwood checking in from post-Zombie apocalypse Toronto. The story, and the sound of hungry zoms breathing down your neck, will keep you moving!