Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Power by Naomi Alderman

The Power by Naomi Alderman was first published in the United States this year and The United Kingdom last year. The book is getting a lot of buzz and it is generating a lot of online discussion. This is a dystopian tale that explores the issues of gender, violence, oppression and religion. 

Over the past year or so I have read several books that take place in fictional matriarchies. This book fits in with that reading. The links to my commentary on the other novels that I read on this subject are below. 

I found this novel to be outstanding. The plot is gripping. The characters are interesting. The themes are fascinating. It is full of ideas. It is imaginative and inventive. 

The book is framed as a historical novel written by a writer named Neil who lives in in the distant future. The story begins in the present time. One day, teenaged girls find that they have gained a new ability. They can administer electric shocks to others. Later they learn how to pass on the power to older women. Women and girls can control the intensity and effect of shocks. Thus, most women gain the power to easily cause minor discomfort, paralysis, great pain, serious injury, or death. The new - found power gives women enormous physical advantage over men. In most cases, males are essentially helpless if assaulted by a woman. Most of the narrative of the book takes place over the ten - year period that follows the change. During this time radical transformations occur throughout the world.

Initially, in some places, there are enormous benefits. Abused and exploited women overthrow their oppressors. Women who are the victims of sex trafficking, physical abuse, oppressive laws, etc. are liberated. In Saudi Arabia for instance, women quickly overthrow the repressive regime and free themselves from male domination.

Things quickly go awry however. Chaos and war break out in many places as revolutions spiral out of control. Much of the narrative takes place in Moldavia. There, a repressive and violent female supremacist regime takes power. Men are reduced to a status of near slavery. Males are brutalized, raped and murdered on a large scale. Lest anyone think that there is no equivalent to this in our world, this part of the book reminds me of ISIS's treatment of women. The regime also institutes laws that are very similar to Saudi Arabian Male Guardianship Laws, but in reverse. The narrative, as told by the writer in the far future, makes clear that this is a pattern that will repeat itself in many times and in many places in the future. 

In places like The United Kingdom and the United States, change is less chaotic but still dramatic. Violence committed by young girls skyrockets. In schools girls and boys are segregated for the protection of the boys. Men and boys fear being out alone and need to be cautious around girls and women. Domestic violence and murder perpetuated against men by women becomes much more common. Men begin to be displaced from leadership roles in both business and government. Men begin to be objectified and sexually harassed. 

In one passage, the President of Moldavia and her entourage is described,

Tatiana is followed into the room by two well-built men in fitted clothing: black T-shirts so tight you can see the outline of their nipples, skinny trousers with noticeable crotch bulges. When she sits— in a high-backed chair on a dais— they sit beside her, on somewhat lower stools. The trappings of power, the rewards of success.”

Alderman has created scenario, where a major change in the physical balance of power between men and women brings about massive social change in a wide variety of areas. The author puts a lot of imagination into the role reversal aspect of the story.

The narrative alternates between several main characters. Allie is an abused foster - child who goes on to lead a new worldwide female - centric religion. Margot is a rising American politician who uses her power to project strength. Tunde is young Nigerian man who is a journalist and who travels the world reporting on the great changes occurring.

This book is not for the faint of heart. It is full of graphic violence. There are numerous accounts of murder, torture and sexual assaults. Nothing is gratuitous however. Alderman is clearly trying to show the terrible aspects of violence.

This book explores so many issues that it is hard to choose what to focus on. My commentary on several other books that centered on matriarchal societies focused on the nature/nurture debate and gender differences. Thus I will write a few words on those issues. Alderman raises what I think should have been an obvious, but somehow overlooked point here. That is, she attributes much of the gender differences relating to violence, sexism, reproductive strategies, etc. to the difference in raw physical strength that exists between most men and women. In a short Twitter conversation I had with her, she emphasized that she thought that the ability to inflict pain was a big factor. It is surprising to me that that this point is not brought up more often.

The main point of the book is that the consequences of this change in physical power would drive fundamental changes in multiple levels of society. The novel makes a somewhat convincing case and makes me wonder how much gender differences relate to physical strength.

I think that if such a transformation occurred a lot of things would change. However, I also think that evolutionary psychology drives a lot of the differences in the behavior of large groups of men and women. I think this is true in regards to the propensity to be violent, and in reproductive strategies. In other words, it is more likely, due to genetics, that men will be violent. It is also more likely that men will act in certain ways when it comes to choosing mates, objectifying people in sexual ways, tendency to rape, etc. 

I do think that Alderman in on to something. I agree that the disparity in physical strength and the ability to inflict pain is at the root of a lot of gender differences. But I think that there is more to the story. If such a dramatic change happened, as envisioned in this book, violence committed by women would surely rise. However, I do not believe it would rise as high as it does in this story. More women would harass and objectify men. However, I do not believe that the mirror imagine world that the book portrays would come to be. Women might exploit and oppress men for sexual and reproductive reasons, but I think that if they did, it would be in different ways. In regards to rape, I think that more women would commit rape against men (a small number do so now) But I do not believe that they would not do so on the level of the mass rapes depicted on this book.

I wrote much of the above before I finished the book. To my surprise, I found that before the story closes, Alderman presents a fascinating, counterargument to the evolutionary psychology type arguments that I mention above. She clearly anticipated such objections. As mentioned above, the entire story is framed as a historical novel by a writer in the far future. The supposed writer is a man named Neil, living in a society where men are clearly face sexism citizen and discrimination, but that may be slowly moving towards equality. “The Power” has indeed changed the world forever. Neil exchanges letters with another writer who is a woman named Naomi. In her letters Naomi makes an evolutionary psychological argument as to why women are more violent then men. She writes, 

“Men have evolved to be strong worker homestead-keepers, while women— with babies to protect from harm— have had to become aggressive and violent. The few partial patriarchies that have ever existed in human society have been very peaceful places. “ 

Neil writes back,

“I… don’t think much of evolutionary psychology, at least as it relates to gender. As to whether men are naturally more peaceful and nurturing than women… that will be up to the reader to decide, I suppose. But consider this: are patriarchies peaceful because men are peaceful? Or do more peaceful societies tend to allow men to rise to the top because they place less value on the capacity for violence? “

I think Neil is speaking for Alderman here. I also think that she is leaving it to  "the reader to decide" here.

The counter argument, presented in this way is simply brilliant. At the vary least, it illustrates how easy one can create a narrative based on evolutionary psychology, that sounds convincing, but that is simply untrue. With that, I am still convinced that evolutionary psychology plays a major part in relation to these issues. In my opinion, a change in relative physical strength between the sexes would make a big difference in our society but such a change would not create a mirror image society.

I am quibbling a little here. These are complicated issues that almost no two people would agree on everything about. Despite my own beliefs, this book is an extremely compelling narrative. It is extremely imaginative and it is bursting with fresh ideas. Alderman is, at the very least, raising many compelling questions. 

I have also only scratched the surface. The book has so many other things to say about people and society. In particular, the book delves deeply into the subject of religion. I could devote an entire, long blog post on that issue. The work also tries to explore the root causes of violence and oppression. 

I found this book to be fascinating. I found it to be brilliant in parts.  The plot and themes are intriguing. The characters are interesting. Throughout the book there is a sense of tension that shows Alderman’s skill as a writer. I think that this book belongs alongside some of the best works of work of dystopian fiction. Due to a lot of graphic violence this book is not for everyone. However, for those interested in this kind of story and themes, this is a must read.

My commentary on The Shore of Women by Pamela Sargent is here.

My commentary on The Gate to Women's Country by Sheri S. Tepper is here.

My commentary on Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is here.

My general commentary on fictional matriarchies is here here.


Fred said...

Brian, I had never heard of this work. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. Excellent commentary on a very complex and on-going problem: nature vs. nurture. Or, some combination of the two?

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Fred . At least in the United States the book is a new release.

I share what I think is the the majority opinion that gender differences over large groups is a combination of nature verse nurture.

JacquiWine said...

Great commentary as ever, Brian. It does sound very timely and thought-provoking. A friend of mine has just been reading the paperback so I'll alert her to your review. I'm sure she'll find it of interest.

Stefanie said...

I have been looking forward to reading this book since I first heard about it months ago. I was early in the holds queue at the library and it arrived but events conspired and I couldn't make it to the library before the hold expired! Now I am 161 in line. Glad to hear you liked it so much!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Jacqui - These issues are timely. On social media and in articles and opinion pieces the nature/nurture debate is very popular.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stefanie - The book seems very popular right now. Sorry to hear about you getting bumped in the library queue. I am looking forward to reading about what you think of this when you read it.

Gently Mad said...

Your review is excellent as usual Brian.

The book leaves me with a lot of questions. Why does someone want to write a book filled with violence? Why does anyone think that physical strength is the only way to overpower people? Don't guns and other weapons level the playing field?

Also, women can psychologically control men as much as men control women.

As you know we differ on how humans came into existence, how they develop or why. But evolution is based on the survival of the fittest so I guess that would explain violent tendencies, if one is trying to overpower others, but only if it produces one's own survival, which in this book I don't see how it does. It certainly seems to produce universal misery.

As a Christian, I see the same violent tendencies in human nature and see it as a corruption of good. The old fashioned world is sinful nature. Why else do people want to hurt or overpower others? Ultimately it benefits no one.

The final question I have is why is a book like that popular? Do people enjoy reading about human suffering?

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian, excellent commentary. The author was brave to have written this novel because when author's create fictional worlds they run the risk of people thinking they somehow identify with what's going on in the story but that's not true. Naomi Alderman has used this world as a jumping off point to explore gender issues. As for me, I think that women (or men) suddenly given the power to inflict painful shocks on people would be as bad as Naomi lays out in the novel. We would see the repercussions right away and as new generations are born it would be a disaster.

HKatz said...

As I started reading the review, my first impression was that this sounds like a revenge fantasy of sorts. The discussion of evolutionary psychology is interesting (I've heard a mix of evo psych commentary on men and women, some of it thoughtful, some of it poorly reasoned, so if this is the more thoughtful kind it could be worth the read). But, and I'm forgetting where I read this, someone pointed out recently that they wish they could see more matriarchy stories that don't simply involve flipping roles, but instead envisioning matriarchy as another kind of culture or set of behavioral norms.

Deepika Ramesh said...

This is a fantastic review, Brian! Thank you. I find this book intriguing because I am curious to know if the reversal of power takes place, especially with respect to inflicting pain. I am beginning to embrace graphic violence in books. Maybe, I should try this to strengthen it. Thank you for the post, Brian. :)

JoAnn said...

I'd not heard of this book, then three separate posts about it appeared in my feed this morning. I definitely need to investigate. An excellent review, as always.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Sharon.

I think books that reflect the violence that occur in the real world, are necessary. I tend not to like art that portrays gratuitous violence. I do think one function of art is to show some of the ugliness that exists in the world. I do not read a lot of books like this, but I do read some. I think that is worth whiled to do so.

Though I can only guess who the book is so popular, I think that people are interested in dystopian societies as well as gender issues these days. I know that I am.

Though I do not think that Alderman is saying physical strength is the only way to overcome people, she seems to be saying that the majority of power, oppression and discrimination derive from it. I do not agree with her.

I think that a mix of a behavioral traits: the tendency to be violent, the tendency to exploit other, the tendency to cooperate, the tendency to act altruistically, etc. all contribute to individual benefit and derive from evolution. Having a mix of good and bad tendencies, increases the chances for survival and reproduction for individuals.

I think that even if one believes in God, it is clear that God created a Universe where physical lays apply and that most things that exist in the Universe can be attributed to cause and effect and natural processes. Thus, I do not think that belief in evolutionary psychology in incompatible with a belief in God.

Have good weekend!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Kathy - These speculative worlds really do give author's the chance to explore fascinating issues. Luckily these are just thought experiments and we cannot test the results of such bad things. We seem to be creating enough misery in the world as it is.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Hila - Some Biological Evolutionary arguments are really poorly thought out.

Up until this point, I always said that I did not like stories that just flipped relations between men and women. In fact, before I read this book I thought that I might criticize it more strongly on that basis. However, it is very well done here.

All of the other books that I have read on fictional matriarchies that I have listed below portrayed matriarchies that were not mirror images of reality. That is one of the reasons that I like them so much.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Joann - This book really is popular and is being talked about all over the internet.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Deepka - How things play out in this book is fascinating and gripping. If you read this I would love to know what you thought about it.

CyberKitten said...

I picked this book up a few weeks ago and put it back down again without buying it. Maybe I need to revisit my decision? I'm certainly feeling a lack of SF in my life and this definitely seems like an interesting exploration of gender differences and violence between the sexes. As you rightly said Dystopia's are popular these days and I for one can certainly understand why [grin].

Brian Joseph said...

Hi CyberKitten - I really loved this book so I would recommend it. Dystopias are indeed popular these days. I feel that humanity is kind of on the cusp these days. I think that pessimistic or optimistic futures are both possible.

The Bookworm said...

The Power sounds like a great read, what fascinating premise. It's interesting to think what would happen if something like this were really to happen, if the tables were turned. Men and women are definitely wired differently, we can think similarly but also very differently depending on the situation. Great post, I'm glad you enjoyed this one so much.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Naida - These books are indeed fascinating thought experiments. The whole nature/nurture debate is so interesting. I think that the differences in men and women are seen in the behavior of large groups.

thecuecard said...

Excellent Brian. So glad you found The Power outstanding. Your the 2nd blog this week I've seen that gave it a positive review. Also Susie at the blog Novel Visits thought the audio was great. I was afraid of reading too much about it -- as I plan to read it soon, but it seems like it has a lot of interesting ideas in it and that you thought it was a winner. After it won the Bailey's Prize -- I've had it on my radar ever since. thanks.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Susan. My plot description was longer then I usually write, but there is still so much to this book that I did not touch upon. It really od full of ideas wort pondering. I am curious to know what you think if you read this.

Suko said...

This book is new to me, Brian Joseph. It sounds fascinating, and your commentary is excellent, as usual. I will keep The Power in mind.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Suko. The book is fairly new. It seems very popular now.

Maria Behar said...

WOWZA!! Another BRILLIANT review, Brian!!

This post raises so many issues and questions, I'm thinking of actually writing a complete post in response, on my second blog, since that blog is dedicated to more serious literary topics. LOVE this post!!

As for the book itself, although it's certainly intellectually fascinating, I know I would never be able to read it, because of the graphic violence. I'm SO glad you've warned your readers about that, Brian! :) :)

Like you, I disagree with the author's viewpoint that women would be just as violent as men, if the current cultural situation were reversed. If women did indeed possess this strange power, they would, I think, use it only to defend themselves against men. I don't think they (we) would be as violent as men have been, throughout the centuries.

Having said the above, I do agree that the whole basis of men's oppression and domination of women is based ENTIRELY on men's superior strength and ability to inflict pain. Let's face it, a six-foot man can easily overpower a five-foot six woman. Men's superior upper-body strength make it VERY easy for them to subdue a woman physically, and thus, easily rape her. This is a biological fact that no one can deny.

I have often heard the argument -- from women, no less -- that women are, in fact, more "evil" than men, due to our subtle, shrewd ability to manipulate. It's undeniably true that women can, indeed, control men through manipulation. But this should in no way be used as an argument to diminish and make light of the physical violence men can inflict on women. What's more, when you compare the two, it's obviously male violence that can inflict the most harm. No amount of female manipulation can compare with the sheer brutality of a man striking a woman with such force as to send her literally flying across a room, and then forcibly raping her, once she is down.

And that is the whole issue here -- physical violence. Men dominate and oppress women due to their superior physical strength. Trying to deny this is like trying to say that the sky is purple.


Maria Behar said...


Going back to the subject of manipulation, men are great manipulators, as well. I recently read a story -- which was supposed to be romantic, unbelievably enough -- in which a man coerces a woman into having sex with him without physically forcing her to. He simply told her that, if she had sex with him, he would not call in a debt she owed to someone else. Is this not a case of manipulation, albeit a more overt one?

I see male manipulation of women in every single facet of society. The very fact that some women actually think we're not oppressed or dominated makes this very clear. This is actually patriarchal brainwashing.

Some time ago, I came up with an idea to level the playing field between men and woman, in terms of physical strength. Not that it would be widely implemented, though, due to patriarchal brainwashing. It's merely this: there should be a LAW requiring little girls to begin martial arts training at the age of 5, at least. And this mandatory martial arts training should continue to be mandatory as girls grow and mature. At the same time, such training should be FORBIDDEN to boys until they reach their teens, so as to give girls a head start. Many parents would probably be aghast at such a concept. But I think that, if boys knew that a girl had such training from such an early age, they would think THREE times before attempting to sexually assault or physically dominate her in any way. As for verbal manipulation, that, too, would go right out the window.


Maria Behar said...


I think I've mentioned to you before that I was in an abusive first marriage. While that abuse took the shape of verbal and emotional abuse, on TWO separate occasions, it nearly became physical.

On one of these occasions, my then-husband lifted a chair up in the air, and made as if to throw it at me. At the last minute, he put it down, but he obviously scared me, which, of course, was his intent. We had been arguing, and ended up in a room right next to the kitchen. This room, by the way, had no exit, and I was backed up against a wall. So intimidation was his obvious intent here.

On another occasion, we were visiting his father in the hospital, and were arguing as we walked down the hall, and right into his father's private room. His father never knew, though, because by that time, he was totally unable to know what was going on around him, as he was dying....

Well, we walked into the room, and I went directly into the bathroom, which I had to use. I never even thought of locking the door. No one else was going to come in there, and I was with my husband. Okay, so I had just entered the bathroom, and closed the door, when it was suddenly violently thrown open, and HE came in, with this WILD look in his eyes -- one full of VIOLENT RAGE. Then he actually drew his fist back, in preparation to hitting me. As with the chair incident, though, he stopped at the very last minute. I fled in terror, and caught a taxi back home, as I was not driving at the time.

I think that, in both incidents, what he wanted to do was to intimidate me. I also think he knew just how far he could go with me. He KNEW I would NOT tolerate physical violence from him. He KNEW that I would not hesitate to throw him in jail if he actually hit me.

I have posted this very personal story here because it really sickens me that some women actually insist that we women can be just as "evil" as men are, in regards to oppression and domination. I don't think that most women -- even those who are B*****S, would do anything like what my ex-husband did in the two incidents I recounted above.

I realize that some feminists are much TOO radical, but not all of us are. I consider myself a more moderate feminist. I believe in equality. I do NOT wish to dominate or oppress men. And I just want my fellow women to be free from such oppression and domination themselves.


Maria Behar said...


I will wrap things up here, lol.

Several years ago, while already in my second marriage, I had the opportunity to see a movie starring Jennifer Lopez. It was titled "Enough". We watched the DVD at home.

Brian, this was a truly POWERFUL experience!! The woman in this movie, played by Lopez, was a physically abused wife. She finally got away from her husband, but lived in terror because he continued to stalk her. So she enrolled in some martial arts classes.

Her transformation was AMAZING. From feeling powerless, she went to feeling EMPOWERED and POWERFUL. She was finally able to physically confront her husband. Through her mastery of karate, she was able to actually overcome him. In fact, she actually ended up killing him, which had NOT been her intent, but he was by that time more than willing to kill HER, so she had no choice but to act in self defense.

You can imagine how I felt while watching this movie..... Although I'm not a violent person, I was rooting for this character all the way through the film, and wishing I could take such classes myself....

If you're interested in watching this movie, here's the Amazon link:

My point is that we women, even if we don't have this fictional power to "electrocute" men that's mentioned in this novel, can certainly empower ourselves through taking martial arts classes. We can also do our utmost to change the patriarchy from within, by eliminating all of the subtle brainwashing we have undergone. This, however, is, and will be, an arduous and very gradual task.....

I know I've written A LOT here, but, as you can see, I feel VERY strongly about these issues.

Thanks for your well-balanced, highly insightful review, Brian!! Hope you're having a GREAT week!! HAPPY THANKSGIVING TO YOU & YOUR FAMILY!!! <3 :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks so much Maria. Also, thanks for the great comment.

I am so sorry to hear those stories about your ex husband, Intimidation is abuse and no one should have to endure that.

Sadly, I agree, both men and women often do manipulate. Men, having the advantage for so long probably are responsible for the worst of it. Man often had the advantage so they did so more. I also agree, that while many forms of human behavior are terrible, it is the direct application of violence, mostly committed by men, that causes the greatest amount of human misery. There really is no comparison between violent and non – violent behavior.

Other then the difference in strength leading to men oppressing woman, I think that there is a difference in reproductive strategy at play. I think that the root of this is the fact that women get roughly one chance to reproduce every year or so. Women also, before our current age where folks are generally healthier, about twenty years of reproductive years. Men in the other hand can father an almost limitless number of children. They also have more reproductive years. I think that these differences predisposes men to objectify women. and try to control them. Richard Dawkins went into some detail about this in The Selfish Gene.

Nonetheless, the deference in physical strength is a major factor.

Your martial arts training theory is really interesting. As I recall, John Varley in his Gaea trilogy proposed a variation on this. In it humans begin to settle a giant object in the solar system. The early settlers are very violent and a situation akin to the old American West develops. As a solution the government establishes a strict law that only women are allowed to carry guns. This reduces the violence level. I think that of this could be enforced, it would indeed reduce violence.

Have a great week and a great Thanksgiving!

Tammy said...

Great review with excellent discussions in posts above. I'll be putting this one at the top of my TBR list.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for stopping by Tammy and Thanks for the good word. For those whio like this kind of story, this was a great read.

Caroline said...

What a fascinating post. This sounds amazingly interesting. I think I saw it in a book shop but wasn't sure what to think of it. It's such an interesting premise. I don't think that te only reason why women aren't more violent is because they aren't as strong as men. It almost seems the book says that's the reason.
In any case, I understand why this is powerful and generated so many discussions. I'm a bit worried I might find the graphic parts too hard to read.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline -The premise of the book is that physical strength and the ability to inflict pain is basically the only difference between the behavior of large groups men and women.

The book seems everywhere these days.

Judy Krueger said...

Brian, I was not yet following your blog when you posted this. Reading your review, I better understand your position. I don't know the answers to questions she ignites in the novel. None of do. Women know change is needed and I could not see the change being anything less than turbulent as a balance is found.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Judy - Thanks for reading. Twitter is such a blunt instrument for communication. Though quick change is tempting to push for, I think that human history is the story of slow, gradual improvement.