It seems fitting that 2017 has been bookended by two novels about women and power. When the year began, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, which depicts a future where women are stripped of all power, began making its way to the top of best-seller lists. As 2017 draws to a close, another dystopian novel has made it onto some prominent top ten lists: Naomi Alderman's The Power. It imagines a world in which women discover they have a weapon that makes them physically threatening to men — and that weapon changes everything.
"It's some sort of electrical thing which will both hurt you, like an electric shock, and will also somehow trigger the pain centers in your brain," Alderman says. "So it's the power to cause pain by violence."
Young women develop this power as they enter puberty, and it comes as a surprise. A character named Roxy uses it for the first time as she is fighting for her life:
He reaches for her with one hand, the knife in the other. She gets ready to kick him or punch him but some instinct tells her a new thing. She grabs his wrist. She twists something quite deep inside her chest, as if she'd always known how to do it. He tries to wriggle out of her grip, but it's too late.
She cuppeth the lightning in her hand. She commandeth it to strike.
No one knows how or why the mysterious power emerged (though there are many theories) and all over the world women begin experimenting with it. They fight their oppressors, whether it be fending off an attacker or protesting against governments that deprive all women of their rights.
Alderman says it was gratifying to imagine these scenarios. "If I could go and give to women being sex trafficked right now today in some dirty basement, waiting to be raped — if I could go and give them the power to electrocute people at will, even knowing that this might end badly, I would give it to them."
The new power makes women physically stronger, and it also changes the way they think about themselves. "If you were able to live your life as if you were able to cause hurt when you needed to, your life would be so different, even if you never ever had to do it," Alderman says. "That makes you less afraid all the time."
Not surprisingly, men find this new female power threatening. In his first encounter with it, a journalist named Tunde is humiliated after a young women spurns his advances with a shock of electricity. He thinks of how the woman laughed at him, and worries that if he tells his friends, they would think he was weak.
Tunde begins travelling around the world to report on the changes the power brings about. Men are fighting back, and it turns out women can be just as ruthless when it comes to wielding power. At first, Tunde doesn't understand the severity of the situation.
"He's a really good man trying to make his way in a changing world," Alderman says. "He's a journalist. He's very excited by these new changes; he wants to chronicle what's going on. And what happens to him is that he slowly learns — it takes him a while — that he should have been more afraid."
Alderman doesn't shy away from depicting women who are abusive and violent. She even imagines a way that women can rape men, using sex as a weapon just as men do. She hopes those scenes help change the way some readers think about rape.
"If, like me, by the end of [the] book ... you say, 'Oh yes, I see, this is not about somebody taking some sexual pleasure; this is about the ability to humiliate somebody in the most private, revolting, personal way possible,' then I think we've learned something important about what rape is. Rape is not the best way to go about getting sex. Actually, it is the best way to go about feeling powerful if you are a sadist."
Maragaret Atwood was Alderman's mentor as she worked on this novel, but Alderman says The Handmaid's Tale,where men are in total control, is a far more frightening scenario than her own creation.
"People say to me, 'Ah, your novel is a dystopia.' And I say ... 'It's only a dystopia for the men.' And in my world, nothing happens to a man that is not happening to a woman in the world we live in today. So if we find my world to be a dystopia, then we are already living in a dystopia."
Alderman says her book starts out as story about men and women, but it ends up being more about the nature of power itself. It's a theme that resonates in a time when women are taking on men in new and potent ways.