Feminism has done a thorough job of establishing the existence of sex-based inequality, but less so of explaining where this gross unfairness came from. Instead, feminist engagement with evolutionary theories has been mostly of the debunking kind: Simon Baron-Cohen tells us that women are adapted to nurture while men are adapted for conquest; Cordelia Fine patiently explains why this isn’t true; and everyone resumes his or her place to repeat the same debate in another five years’ time.
Naomi Alderman takes a look at this depressing situation, grasps the whole lot in her fist and crushes it down to a new beginning. The Power starts with a simple question: what if women got the edge? What if, somehow, nature placed a thumb on the scale so that women’s tendency to be smaller and weaker than men no longer mattered? This edge, whatever it is, would have to be more significant than physical parity, because it would have to overcome more than bodily difference: something sufficient to upturn millennia of male dominance and all the traditions that sustain it.
At the start of The Power, that something has already happened. The narrative is framed by an exchange of letters thousands of years in the future between a character called Naomi Alderman and her anagrammatic counterpart Neil Adam Armon, who pleads for patronage from an address at the “Men Writers Association”. Even that casual use of “Men” as an adjective is shocking, so unfamiliar that it feels like a breach of grammar. It isn’t, however: it’s just an explosion of the male default. The Power places us in a world where woman is the “one” and man is the “other”.
Neil is trying to cajole Naomi into supporting his manuscript, which tells the story of how that world was made. “I think I’d rather enjoy this ‘world run by men’ you’ve been talking about,” she tells him. “Surely a kinder, more caring and – dare I say it? – more sexy world than the one we live in.” She does dare to say it; or rather, there is no daring at all in a woman venturing her opinion and talking smuttily to a man if women have become the superior sex class. Because Naomi has something that Neil doesn’t: she has the Power.
Some time around the early 21st century, according to Neil’s research, women developed a new organ: under the skin, in the curve of a collarbone, a muscle that allowed them to deliver vicious electrical shocks and even, in the most skilled cases, to control the bodies and minds of their victims. This organ, called the skein, is a response to male violence – we first see it in action when a teenager fights back against the gangland goons sent to murder her mother – but it can also be a source of sexual pleasure. With it, women can inflict as much violence as men can with their penises, and then some. “The power to hurt is a kind of wealth,” realises Margot, an aspiring politician, as her skein starts to flicker. The question is: what would women choose to do with such riches?
If Baron-Cohen were right, the violent potential of the skein would be countered by inherent feminine gentleness. In Alderman’s imagination, no such moderating influence exists. All of the signifiers in the sexual caste system are upended: “Boys dressing as girls to seem more powerful. Girls dressing as boys to shake off the meaning of the power, or to leap on the unsuspecting, wolf in sheep’s clothing.” But what starts as cathartic retaliation – and it really is a pleasure to see women zapping gropers and rapists with a touch of their hands – becomes first gratuitous, and then a holocaust.
The slide from tweaked normality to plausible horror is realised here as perfectly as in the best of John Wyndham or Margaret Atwood. The only thing missing, perhaps, is some acknowledgement of that uniquely female ability that Atwood identified in The Handmaid’s Tale as the reason men want to possess women: the ability to make babies.
Alderman cannot tell us how we got to where we are. Yet this thrilling, spark-throwing version of the future detonates almost everything that seems normal about gender in the present.
The Power by Naomi Alderman is published by Viking (341pp, £12.99)
This article appears in the 16 Nov 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Trump world