Saturday, November 6, 2021

Review: The Power by Naomi Alderman

It's the mid 2010s, and suddenly, women everywhere discover they can produce and control electricity. This power has a seismic effect on societies across the globe (the parallels with COVID-19 are stark and in some ways prophetic) as people react to the balance of power between men and women is thrown topsy-turvy. The inversion of gender stereotypes is intentionally overt. If the idea of exploring this thought experiment holds no charm for you, it will be a charmless read. 

The story telling is allegorical, both textually and meta-textually. The framing story is one of a (male) writer 5000 years into the future, presenting his well-researched but unorthodox theory for how his contemporary matriarchal society may have arisen. He notes to his (female) colleague that the characters are just instruments he uses to describe what he thinks could have happened. But of course, the characters also play the same role for Alderman in her exploration of gender and power structures.

Being allegorical, the message of the story is more important than the nuances of the character arcs or the world-building. One possible interpretation of its message is that if women were more powerful than men, it would be a matter of just years before the world was on the brink of nuclear annihilation. It wouldn't be a technically incorrect interpretation of the plot of the novel, just an obtuse one.

Another interpretation of the message is that there is no possibility of overcoming ingrained sexual or class disparities except through a Pyrrhic victory - only a cataclysmic event in which society must redevelop from the stone age could bring women to the same place of power as men.

The women will die just as much as the men will if we bomb ourselves back to the Stone Age.

And then we'll be in the the Stone Age.

Er. Yeah.

And then there will be five thousand years of rebuilding, five thousand years where the only thing that matters is: can you hurt more, can you do more damage, can you instill fear?


And then the women will win.

But I do think Alderman is a little more optimistic than that. Change without a cataclysm seems possible for her heretical historian:

The world is the way it is now because of five thousand years of ingrained structures of power based on darker times when things were much more violent... But we don't have to act that way now. We can think and imagine ourselves differently once we understand what we've based our ideas on.

Through Mother Eve's voice, this change requires collective action:

It follows that there are two ways for the nature and use of human power to change. One is that an order might issue from the palace, a command unto the people saying “It is thus.” But the other, the more certain, the more inevitable, is that those thousand thousand points of light should each send a new message. When the people change, the palace cannot hold. 
And this change requires recognizing that men and women are equally prone to violence and vengeance and other destructive tendencies, that it is the centuries or millennia of systemic power differences that produces the behaviours we see now.

I particularly loved the framing story. The little microaggressions from the female reviewer to the male author (including the final line of the book: "Neil, I know this might be very distasteful to you, but have you considered publishing this book under a woman's name?") were amusing, as were her arguments against his theory:

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. The few partial patriarchies that have ever existed in human society have been very peaceful places.

I think it did a fantastic job at showing how our current cultural lens shapes our understanding of history.

This is the trouble with history. You can't see what's not there. You can look at an empty space and see that something's missing, but there's no way to know what it was.

However, I think I enjoy this book more in the rear view mirror. While reading it, I felt like it was overly long, with a rather long, odd and unnecessary "beware of fascism" detour. It could have been a fantastic novella, but it was an okay novel.

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