Thoughts: The Power, by Naomi Alderman

I enjoyed this more than I thought I would! Not because I was thinking ugh I will hate this book, better read it, because I uh definitely never do that (let me kick Thomas Wolfe under this carpet here), but I guess when I heard the premise (women evolve an electrical organ they can use to stun/incapacitate/kill) and (forgive me) that Margaret Atwood had mentored the author* I had a certain image in my head.

Anyway let’s dive in. Spoiler warning.

There are some books where you hit a certain point and that’s it, you can’t stop anymore because you’re falling through this story with something like gravity and you need to get to the end. This was a book with a tipping point like that, and it wasn’t just because I’m using reading to procrastinate from my own writing. I can’t say where exactly it was, but I remember realising that I didn’t want to stop reading at the end of a chapter. I binged the ending shamelessly.

I will say straight off that this is a book I wanted more from, like Pachinko (though in totally different ways). I wanted more timewise from Pachinko, filling in gaps and extending forever, but I wanted more depthwise and breadthwise from The Power in the period covered by the story.

The Power takes us from the beginning of the female electrical organs (skeins) appearing and becoming usable up to (I am not playing around with that spoiler warning) right before some kind of nuclear event. This is a huge playground to explore, and Alderman jumps around between characters and countries to give us as wide a view as possible while still propelling the story forward. I’m being unreasonable when I say I wanted more, I know – she balanced it well, using a travelling journalist to show us global political developments as well as the movers and shakers of the actual narrative of the story, who remain more settled in place, if not in action. There is almost certainly no better way to balance this, but the world is such a big place, and I like to think it’s a testament to how well Alderman explores the premise that I wanted to see it play out from every angle.

The illustrations throughout worked really well as well, I thought, giving us the story beyond the time period covered by the narrative. The illustrations are of historical artefacts, some real and some tweaked for the alt-timeline purposes, with little captions that elegantly reveal the larger story of the Event and hinting at how civilisation has developed since then. It’s really well done. I like it.

I had some weird nitpicky meta problems with aspects of the story, so let’s get into those. As it often is, I feel bad about laying these out, because I did enjoy this story, but eh, these are my thoughts.

Firstly, Margo winning her election after being electrically-violent on the stage towards her male rival. In general I liked Margo’s evolution, as the oldest viewpoint character and the one most used to living in the Before world, and I didn’t necessarily mind her letting her power get the better of her (in terms of story rather than how I wish political debates would go) but the immediate support of the voting public didn’t quite convince me? I get the point Alderman was making, in the way the American voting public seems to really get off on shows of power, but at the same time, I would absolutely have thought Margo’s femaleness would have been a complicating factor in this. The whole rest of the world of the story is set up to evolve from our current cultural mindsets and views of women, and I just couldn’t quite believe the American voting public would accept a) a powerful woman full stop, and b) a powerful woman who lashes out in anger. I think it would be too easy to just slot it into “irrational emotional woman” and it would have worked against her.

Secondly, and this is an incredibly tiny detail that you will rightly roll your eyes at, but there’s a point late in the story where Roxy, the gangster’s daughter/gangster in her own right, frames the idea of running away/hiding as something she can imagine from a male point of view, as she is now without her power. My incredibly small and petty problem with this is it just felt too on the nose, when the first time we see her, she herself is locked in a cupboard while goons are breaking into her house, and I would have thought the natural link would be to her own past rather than this sort of self-conscious “running and hiding is something men do” idea.

Thirdly, it’s nice that we have a male point of view in Tunde, and nice that we get the global perspective of the journalist, but especially as the story goes on, I couldn’t help but wonder why anyone was sending him to these places or to cover these issues. Early on in the book he thinks about how this story is his story to cover/shape/report, and I thought, Oh yeah, you think so, do you? but actually nobody ever calls him on this weird misplaced ownership of someone else’s story. Nobody. He’s generally accepted everywhere, even in very female, sensitive regions and contexts, and this is explained by his charm and the fact that he’s famous for covering the whole women issue, but I can’t believe that every single woman would welcome him in like that. When things look dangerous for men, he’s still sent in there, or at least not replaced by, you know, female journalists, who exist even now. Even female war reporters.

To compound the story-ownership thing, his work is then subsequently stolen by a female colleague he trusted.  I guess I felt like the women he encountered were all very reasonable and tolerant, with a couple of token exceptions. Also, I feel like a massive tool for saying “also racism wasn’t a problem”, but it wasn’t, and that kind of avoided some interesting issues that might have arisen. Not that I have a problem with speculative worlds where racism is taken out of the equation, just that given the rest of the gritty realism, it was a weird absence.

Fourthly, I don’t think I was ever really convinced by Allie’s motivations (I liked her beginning and her ending, but she was a little bit static somehow through the middle, which seems weird to say). It wasn’t really clear what she wanted a lot of the time. Also, I don’t think her healing uses of the power would have been unique, at least not for long at all. I find it hard to believe that nobody else in the entire world would have made the connection between electrical impulses in the body and the skein as a means to manipulate it, and though I could accept her as being the best at healing (someone has to be the best at everything) I couldn’t accept her being the only. That no female scientists (which also exist even now!) would think to experiment with this, or even guess what she was doing, was a little bit unbelievable.

These things all tie into the most meta part of my misgivings, which was the framing story. The story begins and ends with email exchanges between the fictional male writer of the “historical fiction” manuscript, in the post-Cataclysm world of The Power, and his publisher? editor? mentor? who’s named, pointedly, “Naomi”. I completely forgot about it while reading (despite the illustrations, which I think were probably meant to keep it in my mind), and then was pulled up short at the end when the emails popped up again.

Partly I felt like they were a bit too on the nose with “Naomi’s” patronising manner (and her name on the cover? Are we to infer that she’s stolen it from the original author?) and a few sexist one-liners thrown the other way for once (a male-led world being more nurturing etc). I don’t think it was needed on top of the rest of the story, though I assume it was satisfying to write.

Partly (perhaps unreasonably) I felt like it was excusing some of the problems I had with the main story, where it seemed simplistic or that civilisation adapted maybe too fast and too easily to the new gender dynamic, because then it could point to the framing story and say, “Oh, but it’s just this imaginary future man’s idea of how things might have been, and women have been in power so long in his world that he can’t truly imagine how women feel and act in a world like ours.” That doesn’t quite stand up for me, because the vast majority of the story is true to life in that sense – the way the men try to hold onto power, the way the MRA movements online evolve, the technology which was all destroyed in the Cataclysm. It clearly isn’t a case of a misinformed or unreliable narrator/writer. Or maybe he’s just that good a historian. Or maybe he’s still not real. The argument is circular and in the end, I’m still going to say the problem is with the story itself rather than my interpretation of it.

That looks like a lot of negative, but that’s just the nature of the beast. Much like in fiction writing itself, you get the most words from the negative. You’ll just have to trust me that I enjoyed this book a lot, and I spent a lot of time during and after thinking about how the premise would change the world we live in.

*I love Margaret Atwood, but after reading the Testaments, which, though accomplished, and though I enjoyed it, lacked the bite of the Handmaid’s Tale and felt almost safe, I dunno, it all just seemed to fall in a certain pattern. Why am I justifying myself to the five people who will read this? I don’t know!

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