Role Reversal: Naomi Alderman on The Power

It's one simple change – the world's women develop the power to electrocute people at will. There is a reversal of gender roles, a transfer of power. Author Naomi Alderman discusses her speculative feminist sci-fi novel The Power

Feature by Annie Rutherford | 24 Oct 2016

“I would encourage any woman to imagine that they could electrocute people. Imagining won’t hurt anyone. But it might change how you think and feel about yourself.”

This call to virtual arms comes in the middle of a conversation between Naomi Alderman and The Skinny about gender, feminist science fiction and the apocalyptic goings on of 2016. Alderman’s latest novel, The Power takes the world we live in, and changes just one thing: in the fictional world of The Power, women develop the ability to electrocute people at will, shifting the capacity for violence from men to women.

“There’s no country you can go to so as to escape gender,” Alderman points out. “We can’t actually leave planet Earth. So science fiction is the closest we can get to imagining how things could be different.

“This book is my hypothesis,” she continues, “and if the novel convinces, then the hypothesis is supported. If it works for you, the reader – do you go, ‘yes!’ or, ‘mmm, yeees,’ or, ‘no but this bit’, or, ‘no no no no no’ – if it works, then we’ve found something out about gender together.”

The novel certainly does convince. Told through the eyes of four different characters – three women and one man – who experience the change from very different places, The Power offers a brilliant dissection of both power and gender. Far from becoming heavy or overtly moralising, however, at its heart the book remains an adventure story in which the boundaries between good and bad constantly shift. Part of the book’s strength lies in this portrayal of victim and villain as hopelessly intertwined and, as a result, its power to make us relate to and root for mob bosses, politicians and cult leaders. “I don’t think anyone gets off lightly in this book,” Alderman muses. “There are people who think they’re winners but I don’t think they are.”

This is true of both genders in this narrative, with Alderman making clear that the solution to gender inequality isn’t complete reversal. She laughs. “Men have feelings too!” And as she passionately points out, society’s enforcement of gender norms doesn’t just negatively impact on women; it denies men the ability to fully live as themselves too.

“The idea that there are particular qualities or emotions that are reserved to one sex is a crime that we perpetrate on children from the moment they are born,” she insists. “All of us have moments when we are strong and when we are weak, when we are angry and we are also kind. We are vulnerable and we are victorious. We like to have careers and we take joy in our relationships with our children. All of us have moments when we really are very horny and when we actually don’t want to have sex right now. When we deny ourselves one of these things we cut off a part of ourselves. An essential and vital and beautiful part.”

The book takes its tone from current events, and its focus on the young generation of millennials emphasises its feeling of prescience. As ideologies shift to match changing power structures, young women are mobilised through videos shared by a tap on a smartphone screen. Men’s rights activists spread conspiracy theories in online forums whose rhetoric is sickeningly familiar. And televised political debates can make and break careers.

In some ways the book is surprisingly, frighteningly relevant. “At the start of the year, my American editor reading this novel said, ‘Nuclear weapons, are we still concerned about who has their finger on the button?’ And now…” Alderman breaks off in despair. “It’s been quite a horrifying year for the retrenchment of value systems as to who can make the more horrifying shows of violence.” In one of the key scenes in The Power, a politician is elected despite, or rather because of, losing control during a public debate. “My editor also didn’t think that Margot was still electable. I was quite careful when writing that part. I didn’t think she could be running for president, but I figured a government senator was maybe okay. Now I think, oh my God, I could have made her president of the world!”

Yet while The Power rings true with all that has been apocalyptic in 2016, it is also a book that offers hope. Alderman’s depiction of the early days of revolution brims with joy and excitement. The power to electrocute is passed from teenage girls to older women, and in one particularly moving scene a girl passes the gift to a group of women imprisoned as sex workers, offering them not just the light they ask for but the freedom they desire. “That was conscious,” Naomi explains. “I’m so excited by young feminists today. I’m inspired by how these young women are not afraid to show their anger. They aren’t afraid of not being nice.”

In a move somewhat reminiscent of that classic of feminist science fiction, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the narrative of The Power is framed by letters written thousands of years later. Exchanges between author Neil and his mentor, Naomi, discuss the possibility of a past in which men were the stronger sex. “I feel that those letters are hopeful,” Alderman remarks. “Because the novel is still going to be published. Even in that world. My thought is, if you change who has the power to inflict violence and change nothing else, there would be a period of violence and revolutions and it would be horrible. But I also do believe that justice is also an instinct in humans. We would find our way back.” 

At the same time, the letters offer a wry criticism of today’s culture of publishing and the wider workplace, with a nod to the fact that the novel is published under Naomi’s, not Neil’s, name. Alderman laughs. “We know these things have happened, right? Take the thing around Ferrante. Since she’s been named people have started saying, oh, I bet her husband helped her with this. Now the truth is, as we know from history, we should much more often be asking this about men. We should be looking at male composers, male writers, male scientists and be saying oh, but I bet his wife, or his sister, helped him with that. But we don’t.”

Has she ever considered publishing under a man’s name? “Ha. I have. I mean, I have thought of it. I would hire an actor, a nerdy Jewish guy. I’m curious – because you know, the invitations you don’t receive are invisible.” She pauses. “Have you ever considered what would happen if people considered you be that bit more competent?”

The talk turns to workplaces: to female bosses, and male colleagues, and the multiple insidious ways in which women, throughout their lives, are taught not to be confident. Alderman mentions the annual VIDA survey, which examines which books are reviewed and in what terms. “Men’s books are far more likely to be called important,” she explains. “A woman might write a ‘family saga’. A man would write a ‘sweeping multi-generational epic’.”

For the record, and for VIDA: this is an important book. Pick it up for the gripping plot; keep going for the characters you are proud for and terrified of. Put it down, go out into the streets and feel your hands beginning to tingle with power. And like the young women in the novel, pass the book on.

The Power is published on 27 Oct by Penguin, RRP £12.99