When It Changed
What happens when women worldwide get an electric-shock ability? This!
released 27 OctOber 352 pages | Hardback/ebook Author Naomi alderman Publisher Viking
Science fiction and fantasy stories have been used to imagine different constructions of gendered identity, and different configurations of gender relations, since at least as far back as Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s “Sultana’s Dream” (1905). The best of these – by the likes of Joanna Russ and James Tiptree Jr, or more recently Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army – are uncomfortably and deliberately thought-provoking reads, shot through with unforgiving violence and with sharp, ugly challenges to our basic assumptions about how the world works. So when we say that The Power is profoundly disturbing and you may well want to argue with it as you read, we mean that in a good way.
The novel starts small. In the very near future – or, perhaps, an alternate version of the present – we see a series of teenage girls in different parts of the world facing down violence with a newlydeveloped superpower: the ability to generate and channel electricity within their bodies, via a brand new bodily organ, the “skein”. One scares off an attempted rapist with a serious electric shock; another stops the heart of an abusive adoptive father. Initially, it’s heady stuff watching arrogant abusers abruptly discover that their victims are a lot less helpless than they thought. But Naomi Alderman soon pulls back her story’s focus to show us that the personal remains political. While the power’s early use is localised and defensive, it soon spreads, and its consequences can’t be ignored. Women suddenly, and more or less universally, having a greater inherent capacity for violence than men means that the world is fundamentally changed, even if parts of it are reluctant to realise that.
At its heart, the tale is an exploration of power in general: who wields it, how it changes them, and how it shapes both individual lives and wider societies. Over the course of the novel – divided into sections that are, ominously, counting down to something unknown – Alderman traces the changing balance of power in everything from intimate relationships to geopolitics, exposing difficult truths about how real-world hierarchies are enforced and what people (whether men or women) will do, if they can. She does this through a variety of characters around the world, each trying to use the power to their private and public advantage with varying degrees of success. Some are more sympathetic than others, but all are well realised and plausible in the often destructive choices they make. Women like runaway Allie and mob daughter Roxy find security in violence, and swear to never be victims again; others, like politician Margot, are rewarded for it by institutions that value aggression. Meanwhile men, like journalist Tunde, learn horrible lessons like what it is to fear walking alone at night, and how to flatter and appease the female friends and colleagues they must increasingly rely upon for protection and advancement.
All this may make it sound like The Power is an unrelentingly grim and dour book, but it isn’t. Yes, there’s quite a lot of grim; a relationship that would in most books be a bright spot, a happy ending, is rendered pretty disturbing by the diminishing space around it for any sort of connection between women and men that isn’t built in some measure on dominance and fear. But there’s also plenty of humour to be found, whether in the sardonic asides of the voice in Ally’s head (which may or may not be divine), or the sly framing narrative that positions the novel as a work written by someone in the far future seeking to understand events, and finding that no one really believes men could have once run the world... Nic Clarke
Alderman’s previous books include Doctor Who tie-in Borrowed Time. She used to be able to recite every companion in order!
It may sound grim and dour, but it isn’t