The Power, by Naomi Alderman. Pub 2016.
This book was mentioned/recommended in a leadership forum I’m participating in (or trying to), led by Ryan Holiday, author of The Obstacle is the Way. The forum is okay; some of the readings are inspiring, but many seem like rehashing of points already read and learned about in Holiday’s other writings and lectures. One of his guest lecturers in this forum recommended The Power, and it seemed like a more interesting read than the philosophy books.
The story starts in an unspecified but contemporary time, as a re-telling from some very distant future time. Women – specifically teenage girls – develop a power that allows them to (essentially) electrocute others through their touch. As more and more women are awakened to their powers, significant shifts in the social structures of the world start to happen and in a fairly short time (barely 10 years), there is a complete collapse of society and possibly a nuclear winter-type cataclysm. The entire story is presented as a historical theory from a future where women have the power; the structure of society is much as today, just with the sexes reversed (there is nothing in the story about various genders, just male and female). The theory is greeted with considerable skepticism – as if men could ever have been in charge!
There are a few overlapping stories of young girls and their emerging Powers, and how they rapidly grow and develop into positions of authority. What emerges very quickly in this new world order is that power corrupts – absolutely, almost immediately, and almost universally. There are few characters who show any real judicious and considered use of this Power; more often, the Power becomes something with which to wreck havoc and vengeance, with women becoming as or more despicable and more quickly than any tyrant or despot you can think of. There’s political power, a cult, organized crime, and a civil war – all in the space of a few years. There is also one of the most horrific and riveting accounts of a brutal massacre I’ve ever read – truly the stuff of nightmares. Elements like that in the book are very well done, and serve to emphasize that brutality and power go hand in hand and are not the sole province of one sex or another but almost the natural result when one group is powerless.
The structure of the book is as historical fiction – the author from the future tries to present the theory of a past before the Power, and creates these characters and situations to demonstrate the viability of the theory. Sadly, this does not work. By using primarily teenage girls from Western (American and European) society, and showing such a rapid progression to mass destruction and only a limited understanding of the physical basis of The Power (which should have been well understood in that world where women now rule), the story becomes exactly what it says it doesn’t want to be – a fun idea.
While I enjoyed this story – it was a page turner, finished in a day – and I found the concept intriguing, I found it hard to suspend my disbelief. I had this same feeling with The Testaments a few years ago, and for mostly the same reasons: such a rapid societal transformation and then a subsequent overthrow led by arrogant, immature, and selfish girls seems highly implausible, and the holes in the logic are enormous. At least with Atwood’s story, the setting is deliberately limited to a smallish North American region. In The Power, the changes are presented as worldwide and simultaneous, but still centred on teenagers who are suddenly worldly, eloquent, leaders with the main impediment being that some are not old enough to drive or own property.
Not a single character seems motivated or interested in finding possible ways to use their powers for good, and there is minimal explanation of the physiology and no interest in the how or why of The Power. While almost all of the women become megalomaniacal and insane, they are not invincible or immortal, and yet there seems to be minimal effort at reining in any of their destruction and cruelty; they are after all still human, and can be sedated, incapacitated, or killed by any of the usual means. The only effort is the familiar testing-and-labelling approach used to identify and track women (and the odd man) with The Power, and the shunning-and-shaming of those who either don’t have it or can’t control it well.
I had high hopes for this book, and while I enjoyed reading it, upon reflection it was not as good as it could have been.
Fate: While I enjoyed this book, I will not hang on to it.