One of the most succinct definitions of sexual harassment I’ve read over the past few weeks goes like this: For men, it’s anything they might say to a woman that would make them uncomfortable if it were said to them, but in prison. It’s glib, sure. But it gets at the fundamental imbalance of power that characterizes relationships between men and women. To understand what it’s like for a woman to be catcalled, or harassed, or propositioned, it isn’t enough for men to simply put themselves in that woman’s place. They also have to imagine what it’s like to sense the imminent danger in those interactions—to be weaker than their aggressor in every way, and to have that weakness woven into the fabric of society itself. As the adage often attributed to Margaret Atwood goes, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”
The brilliance of The Power, an award-winning speculative-fiction work by Naomi Alderman only now being released in the U.S., is that it conceives of a way to flip this power dynamic entirely upside down. In her world, a story-within-a-story that’s presented as historical fiction, teenage girls discover that they can generate electricity from their hands at will. This new power, as it reverberates throughout cultures across the world, changes everything. A 15-year-old girl in Lagos who’s being harassed by an older man in a supermarket reduces him to a thrashing, crying heap. A London teenager watching her mother being beaten brings the attacker to his knees. A foster kid in South Carolina electrocutes her rapist guardian to death. As she flees, she regrets not stealing a knife from the kitchen for her journey, until she “remembers—and the thought makes her laugh—that aside from cutting her dinner she really has no need for a knife, no need at all.”
What might a world look like in which women are the ones to be feared? The Power charts 10 years leading up to a mysterious moment in the near future, through the experiences of four primary characters. Roxy, 14 at the beginning of the novel, is the illegitimate daughter of a British crime lord. In the book’s first scene, she’s locked in a cupboard while her mother is tortured by enemies of her father. Tunde is a 21-year-old student in Nigeria, the only man in the group, who begins to document instances of women using the power with his video camera. Margot, a mayor in New England, is charged with controlling “outbreaks” in her town, when “early reports of fighting in the playground” leave boys (and some girls) “breathless and twitching, with scars like unfurling leaves winding up their arms or legs.” Allie, 16, takes shelter in a convent in the South with other young girls whose use of the power has led their families to throw them out. She tells them her name is Eve.
At first, the power is a secret among the girls who discover it. “It was ... kinda funny ... when it started, like static electricity,” Margot’s daughter, Jos, tells her. “It was this funny, crazy thing girls were doing. There were secret videos online. How to do tricks with it.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention immediately announces that it’s a virus. Then, a team in Delhi discovers that some girls have developed “a strip of striated muscle” across their collarbones from which the electricity emanates. All baby girls being born have it. And young girls have the ability to awaken the muscle, called a “skein,” in older women, as Jos does in Margot.
It’s in moments like these that the story feels allegorical, like a signal of how the confidence and curiosity of a generation of Teen Vogue readers can change the world. But The Power is at its best when it’s literal, and specific. Alderman describes it as a “novel of ideas,” and she dedicates considerable effort over its 378 pages to imagining how the sudden ability in women to inflict excruciating pain on men might upend the order of communities all over the world. Each of her primary characters seems to represent a particular pillar of society—politics, religion, media, crime—which allows Alderman to examine the manifold implications of the power’s arrival. Tunde is reporting in Riyadh when a handful of girls are beaten to death by their uncles for practicing their power. The other women in the city organize. “A dozen women turned into a hundred. A hundred into a thousand. The police retreated. The women shouted; some made placards. They understood their strength, all at once.”
In Moldova, women who are kept in sexual slavery electrocute their captors to death. In Israel, women with the power are quickly conscripted to use their abilities for national protection. Allie, attempting to hitchhike, realizes that male drivers are afraid of her. In India, a woman who has protested for years tells Tunde that the “great change” feels like a tsunami. “Now they will know that they are the ones who should not walk out of their houses alone at night,” she shouts into his camera. “They are the ones who should be afraid.”
* * *
In the 1915 novel Herland, the feminist writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman imagined a society without men, in which women were able to reproduce parthenogenetically. Gilman’s world was a utopia, although not exactly an intersectional one. Left to their own devices, women have become physically strong; their society elevates intellect, empathy, and pragmatism.
Alderman isn’t so optimistic. From the start, The Power is egalitarian in its conception of human flaws: Girls bully other girls whose skeins haven’t developed, calling them “blanket,” “flat battery,” or the more offensive “pzit,” named for the sound of a charge that malfunctions. Margot, more than the others, particularly enjoys the implications of her new power, just knowing that she could kill the men she works with in seconds if she wanted to. “It doesn’t matter that she shouldn’t, that she never would,” Alderman writes. “What matters is that she could, if she wanted. The power to hurt is a kind of wealth.”
What begins to define the novel in its second half isn’t so much the question of how, given a new kind of physical force, women could reshape the world into a fairer and more compassionate place. It’s the Actonian idea that power tends to corrupt. The change Alderman imagines doesn’t balance the scales of society—it elevates women above men, to the point where toxic behaviors begin to repeat themselves, only in reverse. One particularly droll recurring scene in The Power involves a televised morning-news show hosted by Tom and Kristen, wherein Kristen gets the soft segments on makeup and animals and Tom reports the serious stuff. But as the power precipitates a new kind of order, Tom is fired after spewing a hateful on-air rant about women, and is replaced with Matt, who’s 10 years younger than Kristen. Kristen’s given glasses to wear for added gravitas; Matt gets the recipe bits and the vague air of incapability.
This particular audacity of Alderman’s is defined by the letters that open and close the book, supposedly written by “Neil,” a novice writer, and “Naomi,” who’s offering him her insight on his novel—the pages of which make up most of The Power. Neil’s letters are defined by their self-effacing tone, their breathless apologies and effusive thanks (“Anyway, sorry, I’ll shut up now … Thank you so much for this and I’m so grateful you could spare the time”). Naomi’s are full of bravado and casually sexualized language (“I see you’ve included some scenes with male soldiers … you saucy boy!”). It’s a writerly device that sheds more light on the unshakeable and self-perpetuating imbalance of male-female interactions than hours of sociological research could.
The framing also seems to be a tacit argument that a more equitable society is impossible. That the battle of the sexes is exactly that—a battle. Someone has to win, and someone has to lose. Alderman explains, as the behavior of women around the world gets increasingly sadistic, that they’re doing it “because they can.” Tunde and Roxy, finding themselves betrayed by their loved ones, can only equivocate that the traitors did it “because they could.” There’s no sense in anything that anyone is doing—only the instinct to exert control.
In that, Alderman’s thought experiment ends on a sour note. The abuse of power is integral to society, she argues, no matter who’s wielding it. The world of her book—richly imagined, ambitious, and propulsively written—isn’t any better than ours. It’s just different. People will jostle and scrap and sell out each other to get ahead, no matter their gender. But The Power, even if it doesn’t provide a roadmap to a better world, provokes questions with its conclusion. What kind of weight, you wonder, might it take to tilt the scale toward a more even balance? And what kind of pain would be necessary, and justifiable, to achieve it?