What If Women Had More Physical Power Than Men... ?

Photo: Courtesy of Naomi Alderman.
Imagine a world in which women are empowered with the ability to electrocute and kill at will. Armed with this deadly skill-set, they take over industries, politics, warfare and even religion. In The Power, the intriguing new novel from Naomi Alderman, we are presented with such a world. A world turned on its head, where men cower in terror and women always have the upper hand.

One of the UK’s most exciting literary voices, this is Alderman’s fourth book (her first, the critically acclaimed Disobedience, told the story of an Orthodox Jewish girl from London rebelling against her upbringing). Also known for her work as a game designer and currently teaching creative writing at Bath University, Alderman has been mentored by the Booker prize-winning novelist Margaret Atwood (to whom The Power is dedicated).

The novel is told from the perspective of three women and one man: Allie, a foster child escaping an abusive home; Roxy, the daughter of a London crime family; Margot, a US politician hungry for power; and Tunde, a young reporter coming to terms with his male status in this new and uncertain world. In this age, traditional roles are reversed and new ones emerge: women make up the army, a new religion is born, victims of sex trafficking revolt against their captors and female politicians rise quickly through the ranks. Of course, there is also a dark side: women-only dictatorships develop in war-torn countries and discrimination takes a new form, with men becoming the victims: mistreated, raped and denied human rights.

The ‘power’ behind The Power is that it presents an impossible future, yes, but like all great science fiction, challenges us to think about our present society and in particular, women’s place within it. As a ‘pussy-grabbing’ president-elect prepares to step into the most powerful office in the free world, this is fresh thinking when we need it most. We asked Naomi Alderman to tell us more…

How did the idea for The Power come about?

I was on the tube one day, in the middle of a bit of an emotional paroxysm around the end of a relationship. As the train pulled into the station I saw a poster advertising some movie with the face of a beautiful crying girl and it made me suddenly so enraged that I would never get onto the tube and see a poster of a beautiful crying boy. I started to think about what the smallest thing would be that would have to change in the world to change that.

The conversation around women and power feels very timely against our current political landscape: Theresa May gaining it, Hillary Clinton missing out. To what extent is the novel a reflection of our contemporary world?

The Power had to feel very contemporary. In an early draft, I set it in the 1970s – but I realised that the point is that these problems still haven't been solved, that however much forward movement we think we've made, women still get the rough end of the stick, over and over again. So it had to feel bang up to the minute, not a second behind the real world. I didn't want to leave any doubt that I'm talking about issues that confront us today, not historical ones.

Was your character Margot, an ambitious US politician, influenced at all by Hillary Clinton?

Weirdly, not at all, at least not directly! I based her more on male politicians, I think there's a shade of Dick Cheney in there somewhere. But I do also love TV shows like The Good Wife, which is clearly influenced by Hillary Clinton's life and career.

The book has been described as feminist science fiction. Do you agree with this?

In fact it has been described that way by me, so yes I do! I love science fiction; my first degree was in philosophy, and I think SF is the most philosophical of literary genres.

In a world where women are the dominant sex, you describe a country where men are enslaved and violently abused. Did you intend to shock your reader?

I don't think I ever really intend to shock for its own sake, I think that's a rather boring pleasure, being shocked and horrified. I wanted to let people see the world afresh. There's an exercise that artists do, where you turn a painting – like the Mona Lisa – upside down and then copy it that way round. Suddenly you can see what's really there and not what you expect to see. I think of this book as a version of that exercise. Let's defamiliarise our own world for a moment and then we can see how it really looks, not what we've learned to get used to. If it's shocking, it's because our own world is shocking.

One of your characters, Allie, uses this new power as an opportunity to create her own religion, renaming herself Mother Eve and starting a church. Can you talk a little about religious themes in the book and how religion influences your work more generally?

I grew up quite religious, so the idea that religion can affect people, that it surges up at times of crisis, is very normal to me. I think it's also important to remember that in America, religion is still a massively important force... and America is, for now at least, the dominant global power. So it seemed to me that inventing a new religion was the right call for this book.

If your reader could only take away one thought or message from this book, what would it be?

I suppose I would like women to think about how their lives would be different, how they would think about themselves differently, if they knew they could electrocute people at will. And I'd like men to think – if only for a few moments – really think about and experience what it would be like to be constantly afraid of violence, sexual assault, and all the things that women spend their lives in fear of.

You’re also very well-known for your work in the gaming world, co-creating the running app Zombies, Run! How much does the digital world and our obsession/anxieties around it influence your writing?

I am what they call a 'digital native', which is to say that I love being in the digital world, I feel at home there. But I also grew up an Orthodox Jew. So I have a foot in the modern world and one in the very ancient world – I like that tension. I enjoy liminality. I think there's more to be found by straddling boundaries than there is by staying inside them.

I read that Buffy was one of your feminist heroes. Do you have any others?

Many! I'm inspired by real women and fictional, living and dead. I love Mary Wollstonecraft and I'd love to write her story for the screen one day. I'm pretty impressed by Elizabeth I, and by women I've made Science Stories programmes about for the BBC, including Margaret Cavendish and Hertha Marks-Ayrton. I'm impressed by women who get things done, including Stephanie Shirley and Dina St Johnston, who founded the first software house in the UK, and I really do love Oprah Winfrey – it was incredibly important to me growing up as a fat kid to see a fat woman on TV doing amazing things, I find Oprah's life story massively inspirational. And I think Nicki Minaj is actually fantastic. In fiction, I also love Leslie Knope from Parks and Rec and Jessica Jones. I like shows about 'strong women' that don't just have a single woman surrounded by men; for most women, I think female friendship is the great sustainer.

What are you reading at the moment?

I'm reading Stoic philosophy – Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. I feel we might need some Stoic ideas to get us through the next decade.

The Power, published by Viking, is out now.

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