If the best speculative fiction offers up new ways to see our culture, then Naomi Alderman’s The Power (winner of the U.K.’s Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction) is destined to be a classic. Imagine a world where women are physically more powerful than men. Then just when you are comfortable with that—or maybe think, hey, it’s about time—imagine everything that could go wrong.
The Power tells the disconcerting story of what occurs after a genetic mutation gives teenage girls the power of electricity. At first, they just shock each other for fun, but they quickly learn to harness it, first to protect themselves, then to maim or even kill. The power is transmitted to older women, and eventually, all baby girls are born with a so-called skein of electricity that runs beneath their collarbones like an extra muscle.
Alderman explores the power’s trajectory through the lives of three women: Roxy, the daughter of a British mobster; Margot, an American mayor with political aspirations; and finally Mother Eve. Raised in a series of foster homes, Eve, born Alison, uses the power to free herself from an abusive stepfather and reinvents herself as the charismatic matriarch of a female-centric religion. A young Nigerian photojournalist, Tunde, follows the power from country to country, risking his life and offering the important perspective of an outsider.
Speculative fiction has long been a genre where gender roles can be explored—think of The Handmaid’s Tale or even back to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland. But Alderman goes beyond her predecessors with a narrative that wonders how long before absolute power corrupts absolutely. Alderman is both a novelist and a co-creator of a smartphone audio adventure app called Zombies, Run!, and it may be this expertise in the world of gaming that brings such a fearlessly creative approach to her storytelling. Both a page-turning thriller and timely exploration of gender roles, censorship and repressive political regimes, The Power is a must-read for today’s times.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with Naomi Alderman for The Power.