Book Report: The Power

      9 Comments on Book Report: The Power

Your Humble Blogger had been waiting for months to get hold of a US copy of The Power, Naomi Alderman’s award-winning spec-fic novel. And I finally got my paws on it and read it all on that day, staying up past midnight to finish. It’s a remarkable, extraordinary, magnificent book. You should all read it. Everyone should read it.

I’m not sure what else to say about it. It’s about, well, it’s about power. And gender, and society, and fear.

Gentle Readers who are reading this within a few days of my posting it (October of 2017) will probably have been aware of the #metoo conversation, in which (among other things) a truly large number of women posted that that they, too, had been the objects of sexual harassment or abuse. Men posted as well, of course, in smaller numbers. Some posted details of some of their experiences, others didn’t. It was, as usual, enlightening. It was, as usual, disheartening. It was, as usual, infuriating. It was, as usual… usual. I mean, if feels to me, at any rate, as if every few months there is another round of this conversation insisting that yes, the actual experiences of an overwhelming number of women really have occurred. Then we agree to forget about them for a while, pretend they don’t exist, and make no changes in the construction of our society that might mean—not even that the sheer quantity of sexual harassment, assault and abuse would decrease to only being an occasional and unexpected outrage, but even that might mean that men would not be surprised, this time, to learn that these things happen to people they know.

In The Power, Ms. Alderman presents a classic-science-fiction style what-if: adolescent girls discover that they have an electric-eel power to discharge a shock from their hands. For most of them, if they choose, a powerful shock. Power enough to kill. Power.

Have you just imagined how different the world would be if touching an adolescent girl’s skin risked a painful shock, possibly a deadly one, if she wanted it to be. Think about what it means, about our country, that it would make such a difference. Expand that thought to the world.

The book starts from there and goes on.

We start from here and go on.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

9 thoughts on “Book Report: The Power

  1. Chaos

    Hmm. Some scattered thoughts.

    First off, i hadn’t heard of this and read it because you recommended it. So, data point, people do listen to your recommendations, you saw it here first. The premise sounded interesting, and i wasn’t sure if she’d do anything interesting with it, but i figured i’d give it a shot and find out.

    So: do i think she *did* do anything interesting with the premise? Hmm. The main thing is: i’m not sure i bought it. Her thesis was that a reversal in the perceived balance of power between women and men would be complicated and weird (i mean, and inevitably lead to World War 3, but let’s just stick with complicated and weird for now), and i’m not sure i saw a vision of “complicated and weird” that seemed plausible to me. It jumped back and forth too much — every interaction was a stereotyped power play on one side or the other of a divide. Arguably that was the point, arguably it’s an allegory and i shouldn’t be too put off by that, but the main outcome was that i didn’t come out of the book saying “yes, if this happened it would be like that,” because in the small, incident by incident, i don’t think it would be.

    It felt like too many of the points were cheap shots. And, i dunno, i think about this topic already, probably more than is useful, so i didn’t get a lot out of, “doesn’t it sound ridiculous if you phrase the bias like this?”

    It was disappointing to see a thought experiment about a role reversal in who has hard power, ignore the existence of soft power. I cheered when Allie put together her foster mother’s role in her childhood problems, i thought, yes, that’s interesting, run with that. But then it was not appreciably run with (or if it was, i missed it). And that was kind of it — the female POV characters were primarily people who had been children and had been in positions where they were shown to have no power, before the change. Plus Margot, who was portrayed as ineffective pre-change. Actually, now that i think about it, the scene where Margot dupes the test is an interesting one in this light. But i still think it would have been more interesting to have that character be a *successful* female politician pre-change, who maybe saw downsides to the transition to a more Alpha-Male-y source of influence.

    I liked the collaboration between Allie and Roxy, with the tension between whether they are going to be friends or just use each other to further their goals. Again, kinda unresolved, but one doesn’t get enough of that kind of interaction in fiction in real-life 2017, so i’ll take it, why not.

    Definitely not sorry i read it. But there wasn’t as much there as i would have liked. It’s 2017 and we’re talking about this stuff — that’s great, so i want to see speculative fiction that really explores the hell out of it, and to me this didn’t seem to get out of second gear.

    1. Vardibidian Post author

      So, I see your take on this, and I get wanting more (or just different) things than Ms. Alderman wrote. There were other aspects that YHB would have liked to see more of (in particular, the notions of male-with-Power and female-without-Power and the construction of Gender in Power-world seems fascinating to me, but not, clearly to the author) that are somewhat different from yours, which is how it works. And, yeah, a lot of cheap shots—I liked ’em, mostly, the comic ones providing a little breather from the brutal ones—but yeah, a lot of them were cheap.

      I guess I disagree with your description of the thesis. And I’ll start by saying that the reviewers and award committees seem to be in line with your description, so it’s not as if you are off-base here, or that my take on it is somehow authoritative. But to me, it was an examination of physical power and social power, and the thesis, if there was one, was that the subjugation of women is a matter of power, not gender. No, I don’t think that’s right. It’s that corruption is, at basis, about power, and that everyone likes to ignore (or pretend to ignore) power balances, but we do so at our peril.

      Well, and I think it’s more complicated than that, too. I don’t think it’s an allegory—I think it portrays every interaction as a power play because it is fundamentally about power (hence the title). And about the suddenness with which our assumptions about who has power are disrupted because of The Power. Which means that it’s really about those assumptions, and how we live with them (and sometimes die with them).

      You focus, as most of the reviewers I’ve seen have focused, on the reversal, which really exists only in the comic bracketty bits. The world of the bulk of the book is a world where men are losing the assumption of power, but are still desperately maintaining their grip on the institutions. By the end of the story, that grip may be breaking, but may also be solidifying, and it’s that fear that leads to (in my opinion) the global catastrophe. The Calamity isn’t (as a reader of reviews would imagine) the result of women global leaders using the nukes they control on each other. It’s the result of—well, it’s not entirely clear, but it’s pretty much the result of the nations-run-by-men reasserting control over the women-in-rebellion, and some women, mad with despair, deciding they will need to burn it all down and rebuild, rather than acquiesce again to their subjugation. Because—and this is the core of the book to me—because they can. They have the power to do it.

      So… and I’m just going on at length, not to persuade you to like the book more than you do but because I am unable to stop thinking about the book. For news item at after news item, I think about it going down the way it went down because of the power—sometimes because if adolescent girls really had The Power it would have gone down very differently, but sometimes just because I am paying attention about the social structures and assumptions of power in a way I don’t always do.


  2. Michael

    I’ve just finished the book this evening. The interesting part for me was the slow shifts in relative social power, and how those were enabled by–and grounded so thoroughly in–Now. The Arab Spring depended on modern social media. How much more limited or widespread might it have been 5 years earlier or later? The author shows a lot of individuals changing beliefs and behaviors very rapidly but full-scale social movements being rather slower than that, which feels right. There’s a lag in organizing, in accumulating power, in normalizing drastic change.

    The author’s assessment that toxic masculinity is rooted in power and not in testosterone is disheartening, because there goes one hope for a brighter future. But there are other hopes: perhaps the problem is power imbalance, or perhaps the problem is individual power being so much greater than institutional power.

  3. irilyth

    I finished it just now, and I also took it to be more about power than about gender, and the central thesis to be “power corrupts”, basically. I was sort of surprised that I wasn’t more into it, given that this is a pretty basic libertarian belief, so from a political point of view, “anyone having lots of power over anyone else is pretty bad news” is a message I’m very on board with. If the women had only used The Power to stop people from fucking with other people, think how much different the world of the story would have been. As soon as people start using violent power to create the world they think they want, by forcing others to do what those with power want, it all goes to shit. Yay rah libertarianism, yaknow.

    And yet, I wasn’t really into it, and I’m not sure why. Maybe because I didn’t think that was where it was going: I thought it was going to be more progressive and/or feminist than libertarian, and that the thesis would be more to say that some combination of women being women, and/or women having been victims of oppression for five thousand years, would use violent power differently when they were the ones wielding it. So when it didn’t turn out that way, I was somewhat disappointed.

    I can see it being an important read for anyone who’s slept through the past several months, and doesn’t yet get how much our society oppresses women, and might find the book really eye-opening, and be shocked and jarred into more consciousness about our current world as a result. That wasn’t really me, though — I don’t think there was anything in here that made me say “wait, no, people really *do* that? no way”.

    I enjoyed reading it, and was engaged by the characters, and excited to see what was going to happen to them. But I didn’t end up feeling like this was An Important Book That Everyone Must Read TM.

  4. Vardibidian

    Thanks for commenting, both of y’all!

    I think the book is (for me anyway) much more powerful (as it were) by not being about women being women, as such. Or at any rate, I think to the extent there is an argument being made there, it’s that what we think of as ‘woman’ is indistinguishable from being on the bad end of a terrible power imbalance.

    It’s interesting—Michael’s comment about how different it might be five years away in either direction… I think I may have had a very different experience reading The Power two weeks later than October 12th. Or earlier.


  5. Chaos

    Huh. I have just learned, via another review, that Naomi Alderman is the lead writer for the jogging app “Zombies, Run!” I am not sure how this fact changes our lives here on this thread, but i decided we needed to know it.

    1. Vardibidian Post author

      I thought I had mentioned that the first time I wrote about Ms. Alderman, but it turns out I didn’t, or at least not in this Tohu Bohu. She is also, as it happens, a humongous Doctor Who fan who has written an Officially Licensed Media Tie-In Novel, and when she won the Bailey Prize for The Power told the press that she wants to write an episode of the show.

      I want her to run the show, is what I want.


  6. irilyth

    That remind me of something else that I didn’t entirely like about the end of the book: While reading the concluding framing story bits, between “Jeff” and “Naomi”, ending with Naomi’s suggestion that maybe Jeff should publish the book under a woman’s name, I suddenly wondered if “Naomi Alderman” was in fact a pseudonym, and this whole thing was an elaborate Statement TM by a male Puppies type author who was looking to make a point about how SJW’s had taken over SF and he couldn’t even publish a book any more unless he used a woman’s name, so ha, gotcha! And now you’ve seen, from his chilling tale, how if women had power, they’d be just as bad as men, if not worse.

    That is apparently not the situation, but it wasn’t at all what I was hoping to take away from the ending!

  7. Vardibidian

    Hm. I didn’t love the bracketing of the book, myself, but—well, I knew it was a joke before I started the book, I guess. But I do think it wound up being a distraction, and totally overemphasized the role-reversal part, which is what a lot of the reviewers and commentators wound up concentrating on. On the other hand, those people mostly loved the book and gave it awards and put it on end-of-year lists, so that’s all right, too.



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