When It Changed

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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

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