Naomi Alderman, “The Power” (2016) – A kind friend and patron of the art of literary criticism sent me this book in the mail, saying he had mixed feelings about it and wanting to know my takes!
Let me start by talking about some other books altogether. For a while there, it looked like journalistic accounts of fictional genre disasters might become a big thing, or maybe it only seemed that way to me after Max Brooks’ “World War Z” was all over the place in 2006 or so (it is a profoundly 2006 kind of book). “World War Z” is deeply silly, so I didn’t appreciate how well Brooks did with it until I read a book in the same vein about an AI/robot uprising which was extraordinarily bad. Apparently Brooks also did a bad job writing about a war between people and Sasquatches? Writing! It’s not easy, folks!
No less a figure than Barack Obama (who was big-upped but not by name in “World War Z” – like I said, big time 2006 vibes) named Naomi Alderman’s “The Power” one of his favorite books of the year when it came out. It’s a somewhat more high-concept deal than “World War Z” or the robot book- women develop the power to basically shoot lightning from their hands. It starts with teenage girls, but they can pass it on to other women, and soon enough, pretty much all women can zap people right up.
So… I get this would be a big deal, should it happen “in real life.” But like… people can already kill people, women very much included. Yes, it would be convenient to be able to kill people from a distance with something that is just in your body (though there’s all sorts of limits in terms of how much juice a given woman has, how well they can control it, etc). I mean, it would be weird if half of all people just had a gun on them at all times that they wouldn’t even have to conceal, or draw to use! It would be weirder still if this situation were in-born, and gendered.
But I’m not convinced such a situation would collapse society, which it does in “The Power.” But I’m more convinced that it would collapse society – among other things, societies are maybe more delicate than we thought when I was a kid – than I am that it would result in millennia of matriarchy, and that said matriarchy would be, more or less, opposite-day patriarchy, like a world Quinn and the gang might wind up in on “Sliders.” The framing story is an interaction between a lady editor (named Naomi Alderman) and a dude writer (named an anagram of Naomi Alderman) about the dude trying to write a historical novel of the rise of global matriarchy! So, they reconstituted our society not just down to having publishing houses like ours, but also, as the book progresses, women wipe out refugee camps for fun, wipe out depictions of men ala the Taliban, etc etc.
Look, two things: one, I don’t think future histories need to be credible or even believable to be good or fun. Two, I absolutely think women are capable of abusing power. But the way Alderman handles both the unspooling of this story and the story of women proving as beastly as men just seems kind of pro-forma, a going through of the motions. Like… wouldn’t they come up with more interesting ways of being fucked up and wrong? Different ones, anyway? Given that they’ve got superpowers and all, and the different socialization of women, that first few generations who get powers at least? Why just have them replicate what men do already?
The characters and the writing aren’t awful but aren’t enough to restore the interest lost by whiffing on the execution of the premise. To probably contextualize too much, this was written around the time Black Mirror made its comeback, going from charming and subversive-seeming indie favorite to big-market, overly-lugubrious butt of “what if your mum was an app??” jokes. That’s what “The Power” feels like, to me. **’