book review: “The Power”, by Naomi Alderman

great leadup; incredibly sloppy execution and dismount.

(i often don’t trigger warn for book reviews, but this one needs, i think, tws for transphobia, misogyny, rape)

so the premise of “the power” is that teen girls (around 15-ish years of age) gain the power to create electricity, anywhere from minor static electricity to massive killing blows, and are able to unlock that same power in adult women. the framing device is that this book is being written by a man several hundred years after a society-destroying-and-restarting event, and is a semi-historical, semi-fictionalized account of the ten years or so leading up to the event.

this is not a particularly hopeful book! one of the things that i found appealing tbh is that i’ve seen a surprising number of people say, with apparently genuine feeling, that if women just were the ones to rule the world, we’d be in some kind of peaceful perfect paradise. this book runs with something i think is true, which is: power is a corrupting influence, and access to power shapes the powerful in ways that are not great. this is all fine, i’m on board, buuuuut — well.

first: if you, like me, have had The Genders happen to you, or know trans people, or are interested in trans stuff and gender stuff, you may ask, “how do trans people fit into this?”. the answer is: we apparently don’t exist. trans stuff isn’t touched on at all, which may be for the best frankly in a work of fiction like this. the closest thing is — well. if you, like me, read the titular power as something pretty analogous to the physical and social power men currently wield, there’s a line that isn’t really about trans women, and also echoes fearmongering about trans women being effectively men forcing their way into women’s spaces —

screenshot of text: "There are strange movements rising now, not only across the world, but right here in the U.S. of A. You can see it on the internet. Boys dressing as girls to seem more powerful. Girls dressing as boys to shake off the meaning of power, or to leap on the unsuspecting, wolf in sheep's clothing. the Westboro Baptist Church has seen a sudden influx of crazy new members who think the day of judgment is coming."
“wolf in sheep’s clothing” is — ouch.

like — i don’t think that was supposed to be a veiled comment on trans men trying to gain patriarchal power, or trans women trying to prey on cis women, but also: this could have used some thoughtfulness tbh!

there’s a line near the end of the book about how gender is a shell game; i got this from the chicago public library via the libby app, so i couldn’t (and wouldn’t, you know, it’s a library book) write in the margins, but if i could have i would have written JUST THINK ABOUT HOW MUCH BETTER THIS LINE WOULD HAVE LANDED WITH TRANS PEOPLE IN. but.

second: things just kind of magically Work Out the way the novel needs them to. initially, the power seems like a pretty good thing. early parts of the book include revolutions where oppressed or trafficked women rise up against their abusers, toppling misogynistic structures. the initial shift to people using this newfound power not as a tool for liberation but a way to seize more nebulous forms of power was really interesting and handled well, i think — there’s a thread with an american politician, margot, and her use of the power to consolidate political power and become a mover and shaker, that crests at a debate for governmental position where she loses her temper and uses her power publicly on her male opponent. i thought the early parts of this, how much she was in it for herself and herself only, and how she used her daughters as shields and weapons for herself, was really interesting and cleverly done, and was interested to see how things would pan out once she did a pretty boneheaded thing? but instead: she wins the election by a landslide, because people like power, which is not a false statement, but also: i flat out don’t believe that, in like two years of women having electrical powers, women AND men would be on board with a female politician tazing a male opponent on live TV. that kind of enormous shift in how people perceive women with literal or metaphorical power — i just don’t think that’s a 2-year shift!

there’s a couple of places where this sort of pat just-so-story kind of logic is more obvious than others — there’s a line running through the novel of two television anchors, one a man, one a woman, where initially the man is the Serious Journo and the woman is frivolous and does the fluff pieces and jokes. midway through, the man goes off on a (sexist) rant as he’s clearly being pushed out anyway, and is replaced by a young, cute, somewhat airheaded male anchor who takes the role the woman had. the immediate switch is SO pat and SO 1:1 recreations of how misogyny in the workplace happen it sounded more like some kind of like — aesop’s fable, or other story with a moral instead of a storyline, which made it difficult to believe.

finally, and this probably is the most damning thing to me tbh: there just wasn’t a lot of thought or care, i think, in how a matriarchal society created by force would work? i kind of alluded to this in the last paragraph, but — a nation of women is created, primarily by women who had trafficked. relatively quickly, it goes from a matriarchal paradise to Not That; some of it absolutely rang true to me, and some — SUPER SUPER DIDN’T.

the parts that felt accurate were the laws around men moving around alone — a lot of them were pretty analogous to saudi arabian laws for women, and some justifications that sounded familiar. for example, there was something about how men accused of any crime by women are automatically guilty, even teen boys; this is a little goofy, but i remember reading some bonkers essays in the wake of the kavanaugh hearings of people, like, “i look at my 5 year old son and i see the face of kavanaugh, a rapist in training, etc etc etc”, which i sure HOPE was hyperbole, but that’s neither here nor there. the parts i could not at all get behind —

— look. i just have a really, really hard time believing there would be the EXACT same, EXACT level sexual objectification of men RIGHT off the bat. there’s a scene where someone makes a hot serving boy, whose clothes are cut to display his nipples and junk as much as possible, lick wine and broken glass off the floor, and a really gratuitous scene of women leading a rape gang raping hot young men to death. like — to be clear, “women abusing men because they can now”, yeah, i legit think that’s something that would happen irl if everyone with XX chromosomes got the power to kill at will, but i guess the exact nature of the abuse was so — “what if the patriarchy was… a MATRIARCHY INSTEAD” to me, with very little thought as to what the differences would be if this actually happened, and actually happened in such a short amount of time.

(ftr: if i were writing this book, i think a lot of present cultural ideas of What Women Are would be the thing. a lot less brock turner, a lot more nurse ratchet/mommy dearest.)

even the framing device! it was cute, i guess, but the smug little stinger at the end is that the male author is worried his book will be relegated to the depressing slum of men’s fiction, so the woman he’s writing to recommends publishing under a woman’s name. it was just — lazy, is the best word, i guess! fundamentally lazy in a way i wasn’t expecting, from the first third or so of the book. there are pictures scattered through of imagined archaeological finds; it may be unfair since i guess i’ve been a feminist for kind of a while now and actively seek out feminist art and criticism, but every inversion of “dancing girl/ruling man -> dancing boy/ruling queen” was so… feminist art criticism 101.

…i will say, though, this is one of the very few books i’ve read in a very long time where, when two heteros got together, i was pleased instead of frustrated :v roxy and tunde were by far and away the most interesting parts of the book for me, and i would love love LOVE an entire book about — not just roxy, but specifically the last few moments roxy is in the book, where she, with her powers stolen from her, chats with her dad, who she allowed to live after he killed her mom and stole her power, as they watch the end of the world. like — just think about what a bonkers good book you could write about a girl in a patriarchal crime family who suddenly gets power, and forgiving her father for his cruelty, and is stabbed in the back by her brothers and father effectively for not knowing her place, and then it’s implied she forgives him AGAIN — that’s some good shit right there!!!! some good fuckin shit!!!!!!!!!

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