In terms of power and control, it’s a scary time. Unity and strength seem to be giving way to individual gripes and complaints, people turned against each other to shout blame for the lives they’re not happy with. Unstable times lead to unlikely heroes. People currently in power are those that we wouldn’t have dreamed of electing or giving a voice to. Suddenly, a victory for a abusive right-wing president seems the ‘popular’ choice. Keeping the current UK government, the champion of the few and the enemy of the many, is written as a foregone conclusion. So where do these strange shifts in people come from?
Power. The invisible force that holds up the strong and pushes down the weak. The louder and more monetised voices that make any other opinion seem absurd. The shocking headlines that shout the loudest even when they make the least sense. Somehow, people become accustomed to this power, without realising it’s being taken from them. Things become ‘the norm,’ when in other times they would have been absurd or even criminal.
When living inside the culture we do, being raised and educated with all these things happening around us, absorbing messages from the media, from our peers, from accepted social structures, it’s almost impossible to unpick them and find the source, the reasons behind people’s actions and beliefs.
One way of doing it effectively, is to turn everything on its head. In her wonderful novel The Power, Naomi Alderman does just that. Rather than grounding her ideas in the world we know and recognise, she creates just one shift, nothing huge, that puts the balance of power in the hands of women. By creating this alternate future, she effectively re-writes history. An age where the idea of men being in charge is absurd, and the whole of the world shifts on its axis.
The premise is quite simple. At a certain point in history, adolescent women start to develop an ability to create electric shocks, not unlike the electric eel. With this change, all physical power is now apportioned to another gender. This, in turn, shakes the foundation of everything that has been based on this assumption of the power of one gender over another. Religion, economics, social status, personal relationships, suddenly everything is skewed. The novel is written in an imagined past, where the discovery of this power and its effects have impacts across the globe.
What’s interesting is the way this power is felt and explored. Not one to fall into the easy trap of assuming women in power would be ‘softer,’ she instead looks at the transformative potential of power. The way it alters the perceptions and mindset of both victor and victim, the way it can shift entire world views and reshape the politics of continents.
Not that this is a book of political musings. The narrative is edgy and fast-paced, with a host of characters providing insight into the different possibilities of this new world. From Allie, an abused orphan who recreates herself as a religious leader, to Roxy, who uses her power to get revenge for her mother’s murder. There’s also a political figure in the US, managing the shifting world in a careful manner, while abused women everywhere rise up and get revenge on their abusers. The only male character we hear from directly is Tunde, who acts as a filter for the media, as he spends his time roaming the globe and reporting on the impact of these changes worldwide.
Much like Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Alderman uses an extra narrative ‘outside’ the frame of the book, which grounds it in an alternative history, giving it a much firmer rooting in reality. What she also does is completely subvert any notions of ‘innate’ behaviour as far as gender is concerned. I cannot count the amount of parents who tell me that their children of different genders are ‘just like that,’ without factoring in the myriad messages that beset children on all sides about how to be a boy or a girl, never mind the fact that, consciously or not, their reactions to their children will be subtly influenced by their expectations of what is to be expected of a male or female baby. In this novel, Alderman shows us that it is power, or fear, or lack of it, that truly influences human behaviour. Men become the more caring and nurturing sex, and females are labelled as aggressive, because of the need to protect their children. Nothing is necessarily pre-ordained or innate, and we should remember that before we label little girls as ‘bossy’ and little boys as ‘strong.’ Would we still use those labels if it were women we found behind the power and control of politics and business? I think not.
Alderman’s message is hardly a positive one. Like most revolutions, it starts with fervour and hope, and ends in disillusion and despair. Rather than replacing the violent structures already in place, we find that humanity, alas, does not learn its lessons, and we end up with a very similar situation, just with a different gender at the top of the pecking order.
It’s also worth remembering that, unlike in her novel, there are no biological or magical powers that place one human being higher than the other. Any power structures we have are created, built and supported mostly by those in power who don’t want us to challenge it. Power is an illusion. A powerful one, but a construction nonetheless. The next time you feel like you have no control over the world, just remember that all it takes is a spark, and the entire of human history can be rewritten.
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