When I was thirteen or fourteen, I read a number of science fiction and fantasy young adult novels that imagined matriarchal worlds where women held political and societal power, rather than men. These worlds were not necessarily presented as utopias, but they were usually peaceful, co-operative and somewhat passive in the face of threat. Published in the 1980s and 1990s, novels such as Louise Lawrence’s Children of the Dust (1985), and Jean Ure’s Come Lucky April (1992), already seemed to me to be very old-fashioned. Of course it was ridiculous to assume that women would rule any better than men, I thought. And why would you want to imagine such a world anyway? I devoured these novels, but regarded them with suspicion. I thought that I recognised them as part of a ‘feminist’ project that was itself out-of-date. (I’m not a feminist, I declared proudly at that age; basically, I was saying I’m not like other girls.) Concerns about gender had nothing to do with me and how I was going to live my life.
Most readers probably know the premise of The Power by now. Girls and women start to develop the ability to deliver fatal electric shocks through their fingertips. At first, this is regarded as a curiosity; then as an incipient threat; then as an existential crisis, especially as religious cults form around female religious leaders and women overthrow male-led governments. The book swaps between a number of viewpoints; Allie, who assumes the mantle of ‘Mother Eve’ and claims to perform miracles; Tunde, who starts off as a freelance reporter and soon finds himself being pulled into the unrest; Margot, running for state political office, and her daughter Jocelyn; Roxy, part of a family of organised criminals in Britain who, at the start of the novel, witnesses her mother murdered in front of her. These stories are tied together by a framing narrative that takes place thousands of years in the future, as a ‘male author’, Neil, presents them as an historical novel to his female mentor, Naomi. Channelling the Man Who Has It All, she questions his conclusions about the world ‘before’: ‘I feel instinctively… that a world run by men would be more kind, more gentle, more loving and naturally nurturing. Have you thought about the evolutionary psychology of it? Men have evolved to be strong worker homestead-keepers, while women – with babies to protect from harm – have had to become aggressive and violent.’
Other reviewers have rightly criticised The Power for its curious silence on the subject of race, and how race might intersect with this new gender order, especially as it features one black and one mixed-race protagonist whom you might expect to have thoughts on this. Given that it’s already bitten off more than it can chew, I can forgive the novel more easily for not engaging with other axes of oppression. I don’t see any reason why the premise of The Power requires the novel to engage with issues of sexuality, or with trans issues, for example. As ever, I’d like to see more – or indeed any! – important gay, bi, lesbian or trans characters, but the omission is no more glaring here than in many other novels. Indeed, my main criticism of it would not be that it isn’t intersectional enough, but that it doesn’t take into account all the reasons for women’s gendered oppression. In physical terms, women are not solely oppressed as a sex class because they are physically weaker than men, but because they carry, bear and often nurse children. (Helen Sedgwick’s new novel, The Growing Season, out in September, promises to explore a world where men can have babies, and I’m hugely looking forward to what feels to me like an exploration of the other ‘half’ of The Power’s conceit.)
Despite their physical inferiority to women, men in The Power still won’t have to deal with unwanted pregnancy, or pregnancy as a result of rape; they won’t have to spend nine months pregnant and then give birth; they still won’t have to take any time out from work at all to have their own biological children. This means that the nature of their oppression is not the simple flip-side of women’s oppression, but a different kind of subjugation. All this would feel much less problematic if the book simply lacked its framing narrative, which is where we see a gender-flipped world, and overall, I’m not convinced that the framing narrative adds very much. It introduces problems (surely The Power would be written very differently if it was an historical novel from thousands of years in the future? Wouldn’t there be more explanations for its ‘modern’ readers, and less explanation about things the writer would assume they’d know?) and doesn’t solve any. It recalls The Handmaid’s Tale a little too obviously. And yet, despite these issues, I already feel convinced that The Power will remain with me for a very long time.
It’s clear from the start that The Power is not going to be about a matriarchal utopia. And yet, I suspect my teenage self would still have held it at arm’s-length, because it makes it clear that sex, and its constructed counterpart, gender, both matter. A number of reviews of The Power have suggested that ultimately, it’s not really about gender, but about power itself. I’m not sure that’s the case: I think that the novel is about both gender and sex. Alderman seems to me to be interested in the power that men hold over women as a biological sex class. In other words, she’s concerned less with socially constructed ideas about gender, and more about the physical reality of the average man’s physical superiority over the average woman. The unreality of gender norms is demonstrated by the ease with which ‘female’ characteristics – such as emotional behaviour, caring personalities and the sexual double standard – are handed over to men once they are subjugated by women. Of course, we might argue that many of these things, such as the ability to nurture and support, are not undesirable at all, but made so by the unequal burden of emotional labour they require from women. And of course, that’s right. This, I think, is precisely the point that Alderman is trying to make; as she says in her excellent interview at The Writes Of Women, ‘of course it would be good not to be in fear of violence. But the only way we can conceive of that in the current system is by being the wielder of violence… So we want the freedom… but if nothing else were to change we’d just become the aggressor. Or to put it another way (and in the words of Audre Lorde): the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.’
The crucial conversation comes near the end of the novel:
One of them says, “Why did they do it …?”
And the other answers, “Because they could.”
That is the only answer there ever is.
Given its acknowledgement of the reality of the subjugation of women, and hence the importance of feminism, my teenage self would have wanted to run a mile from this novel as well. It’s that, more than anything, that suggests to me how important The Power is, even if its exploration of the world it’s created is necessarily incomplete.
An aside. At the beginning of 2016, I started a re-read project, where I planned to re-read classic books I disliked as a teenager and see if my opinion had changed. I ultimately only got around to re-reading one novel (To Kill A Mockingbird) and decided that, basically, it hadn’t. However, reading The Power has inspired me to add The Handmaid’s Tale to the list. I’ve never been a big Atwood fan, but my skewed views on feminism as a teenager may have unfairly biased me against the novel, which I hated as a fifteen-year-old. Watch this space!