When teenage girls all over the world start developing the ability to give electric shocks, the men of the world immediately start to worry about how they can be controlled. When it’s revealed that they can also pass on this knowledge to older women, they start to panic. As more and more women discover ‘the power’ – societies all over the world start to fall apart and reform as something completely new.
In this reality that Naomi Alderman has created, women dominate every aspect of society – from world politics to religion to the criminal underworld. Powerful older women can have their pick of eager young men hoping to impress them. Teenage boys are encouraged to carry rape alarms. Women form the backbone of elite military troops. For the first time, women are now inherently stronger than men, and this causes a huge upset on a deeper level.
There are a few key characters followed throughout the book – Allie, a foster kid abused by those charged with her care, Roxy, the unwanted daughter of a London gangster, and Margot, a politician ready to exploit every opportunity to rise. Each of these women use their newfound power to create a new life and build a new reality. World news is reported through the eyes of Tunde, one of the few sympathetic male characters, who travels the front lines of war torn countries to record history in the making.
There are some moments that make for uncomfortable reading. In her position of political power Margot takes full advantage of young aides eager to please, and there are scenes of extreme sexual violence against men. On a less extreme scale, armies are now female to take advantage of their natural aggression, while negotiators are male as they are inherently less threatening. But what makes this book even more disturbing to read is the realisation that all of these situations described have happened, and are indeed still happening, to women all over the world.
The fact that these ideas are so alien to us as readers, in a society claims to value gender equality and equal opportunity, is perhaps the most shocking thing of all. This is classified as sci fi, because of the powers that women develop, but the upheaval of gender politics is the thing that really strikes a chord. It makes you realise how deeply gender stereotypes are ingrained into society.
While there’s no doubt that this is a feminist novel, power and what we do with it is at the heart of this novel. The events shine a light on how those who currently hold power are abusing it, while also suggesting that if the situation was reversed it would be no different. That power corrupts is presented as a simple fact.