The Power is horrifying in a lot of ways, one of which is how parts of it are also rather cathartic, which it shouldn’t be on the whole. If that opening sentence sounded a little confused and contradictory, that’s because it reflects my feelings about the thing. On the one hand, it’s about women getting to win, but on the other hand, the violence and abuses of power by men and women make it hard to feel good about anything, because it comes off as altogether misanthropic.
Toward the middle of the book, when tables were turning and men were reacting to the shifting paradigm of power, I experienced visceral satisfaction reading how the women took back control over their own bodies and their lives. I felt the wonder of the women who were able to defend themselves in dangerous situations, and the triumph of the women who realized that even the suggestion of superior physical strength earned them a level of respect from society that was previously unimaginable.
But at the end… I don’t know where to start. I guess the message here is that power corrupts, no matter who is in charge. You get women basically behaving exactly as men do at their worst, and I don’t know what to make of that. My gut reaction to the worst of it was “That wouldn’t happen.” But believing that means that I believe there is some kind of intrinsic quality in women that would make us behave better if circumstances were reversed. And obviously, we can’t say that. Alderman seems pretty convinced that we wouldn’t. To be fair, writing a book about women who can suddenly generate lethal electric currents out of their hands would seem kind of blandly safe if they took control of all geopolitical, social, and economic power and were super nice about it. But I wasn’t prepared to have my emotional reaction swing so completely from vindication toward dread and disgust.
I’m having one of those internal disagreements that I have from time to time with books, where I don’t know if I’m having exactly the reaction that I’m meant to have. I’m disappointed that this didn’t just get to be a story where the playing field was leveled in terms of physical strength, and how that allowed women to take unprecedented steps toward equality. I think there was an opportunity to really pick apart the notion of strength as a virtue in society. People are much more admired and respected when they are strong, or project an image of strength, and that has such influence on who we choose as leaders. Even though people have different ideas about what makes someone strong, the concept of wanting a “strong leader” is pretty universal. And subconsciously, it doesn’t count for nothing that men on average are physically stronger than women. You wouldn’t elect a man as President of the US in the 21st century merely because he looked like he could lift more than his female opponent, but the implicit historical bias of strength being associated with masculinity doesn’t work in favor of women aspiring toward leadership.
All of that goes to say that once the Power emerges in girls and women, the transferal of power to women based on their new physical advantage was treated as an inevitability, but without really showing a lot of work, other than the aforementioned cathartic vignettes of women taking their first electrified steps out from under the thumb. One main character resolves into a prophet, another takes control of her family’s crime business, and another rises in the US political system. In the case of the latter, what I was talking about re: strength in leadership is pretty explicitly given as the reason why she wins her first major election despite tanking in a major debate. But after that, there were a lot of shortcuts and time jumps taken liberally to get to a point where, a mere 10 years after the emergence of the Power, men are done. Sure, there are tinfoil hat Men’s Rights Activists who are (somewhat hilariously) still seen as completely ridiculous for decrying the oppression of men, even though in this case, they’re actually completely correct. But the MRAs and a handful of governments from the most historically patriarchal countries are the only holdouts against a global matriarchal coup, and there just has to be a lot of other story there well beyond the representative paths of the three female protagonists.
But maybe Alderman flew by all of that for a reason, because she wanted to go all the way and show how bad it always gets when there is a group of humans with unchecked physical power to oppress others. Maybe she didn’t want women readers to get too comfortable with this fictional world of women who are stronger than men, and she needed it to be a cautionary tale. “Stay vigilant, and don’t do this just because you can,” if you will.
What kind of sucks is the reflexive hopelessness that message imparts about the real world. This isn’t the first time by a long shot that I’ve consumed something where people become tyrants while the whole time thinking they’re doing it to make the world better, but as a work of speculative fiction, this particular book seems especially harsh because it’s not metaphorical enough to provide a safe distance between its fictional world and our world. If the promise of physical dominance and the resulting spoils of war are so attractive that a group of people who should know better can’t help but become the oppressors given the opportunity, what gives? Since in our world, women as a group aren’t about to compete physically with men any time soon, it’s a pretty bleak take that our oppression is inevitable. This book treats advancement as a zero sum game, which is certainly one possibility, but I’d rather advocate for the fact that humans evolved higher order thinking so that we can learn from our mistakes and choose a better way.
In conversations about this book while I was in the middle of it, I had said it was cathartic and thought provoking. Now that I’m done, I feel like it was irresponsible to be so blithely positive about it, but that’s what I get for letting half of a book inform my opinion. The full thing, obviously, is way more complex, on the order of a long-ass review that took literally hours to write.
Before I sign off, a note about the audiobook: I don’t recommend it. This is a book with a number of different regional accents across multiple countries, and with respect to the challenge this presented the narrator, she got some of them a lot better than others. She had to do a few different American accents and voices, which were mostly inconsistent at best, and the same goes for her attempts at the Eastern European characters. It was shaky enough to be pretty distracting.