"Gender is a Shell Game. What is a man? Whatever a woman isn't. What is a woman? Whatever a man is not, Tap on it and it's hollow. Look under the shells: it's not there.”Naomi Alderman's 2016 novel The Power presents what at first glance seems to be a simple thought experiment within a clever framing device, possibly the best since Boulle's Planet of the Apes, asking What if men had to fear--physically fear--women the way that women all too often have to fear men?
The paradigm switch takes place in the novel by women developing a power like that of electric eels to shock, originating with the development of a latent tissue called a "skein." Women develop the ability to generate varying amounts of electric energy, and to control it. At first, we seem on track to a utopian story: Oppressed women rise up against their oppressors, overthrow the patriarchal regimes that render them subservient, or kill those who traffic in their flesh.
Others use their power to heal, to play, innocently and not-so-innocently, but consensually.
But even from the very beginning, a darker strain is present. In the very beginning, a Nigerian young man, Tunde, who becomes our only male viewpoint character, finds himself shocked by a young woman with whom he is flirting. She uses her power to immobilize him, to frighten him, to make him afraid.
As Margot, a middle aged politician whose canny exploitation of the power of women and girls alike fuels her meteoric rise says, "the power to hurt is a kind of wealth." Margot, who we first see as a loving mother whose daughter's power is erratic and weak, later exploits her political power, groping a young man who has been drawn into her orbit. It is Margot who reflects to herself, “It doesn't matter that she shouldn't, that she never would. What matters is that she could if she wanted. The power to hurt is a kind of wealth.”
The foster child Allie becomes "Mother Eve," leading a religious reformation with the feminine aspect of the Divine ascendant, first rescues young girls and women, and then props up Tatiana Maskalev, an eastern European dictator's former model wife, who has killed her husband, takes control of the country, and become as cruel a dictator as the man she replaced.
Roxy, the daughter of a British crime boss, whose power is the strongest of anyone's in the novel, uses it as a weapon for her family, only to be betrayed by those who envy her strength.
And the patriarchs who have been displaced seek to reclaim what they have held.
The story builds to a surprising and yet inevitable conclusion.
The novel is, in addition to being a first rate piece of speculative fiction--engrossing in its plot and characters--an extended meditation on power, its meanings, its dangers. More than any writer since than C.P. Snow, Alderman distrusts power's shadow side while acknowledging its needfulness for reform. Alderman's novel works out the ramifications of the passage in Snow's work that encapsulates my own political world view. It's from Snow's The Light and the Dark (1948), making the point that self-knowledge, stripped of arrogance is crucial to those who hold power. Here's Snow's stand-in Lewis Eliot, debating the balance of power in 1937 with a young Nazi:
"No one is fit to be trusted with power," I said..."No one. I should not like to see any group of men in charge--not me or my friends or anyone else. Any man who has lived at all knows the follies and wickedness he's capable of. If he does not know it, he is not fit to govern others. And if he does know it, he knows also that neither he nor any man ought to be allowed to decide a single human fate, I am not speaking of you specially, you understand; I should say exactly the same of myself."Alderman extends the observation to women.
Our eyes met. I was certain, as one can be certain in a duel across the table, that for the first time he took me seriously.
"You do not think highly of men, Mr. Eliot."
"I am one."
And yet, she is optimistic, too; as she says in an interview:
“Do you know what? I’m hopeful,” she says. “I can’t say that I’m specifically hopeful for specifically 2018, but I think we have been on a long movement towards greater justice and recognition of the huge amounts of human potential we’ve been throwing away with this gender bullshit.Alderman is an interesting writer, whose critique of power and its gendered uses, are thought provoking without losing the narrative impetus. Barack Obama picked The Power as one of the best books he read in 2017. I think it's the best I've read thus far in 2018, and will be hard to top.
“I feel that we’re finally recognising – imagine the Mozarts and Picassos, and incredible engineers and everything that we’ve missed out on by not valuing women’s brains, and imagine the amazing parenting we’ve missed out on by not valuing men’s parenting abilities.