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Author Naomi Alderman creates a world in which women can zap men with their superpowers

The Power, winner of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, is touted as an ode to Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.

Contributed

Imagine what would happen if tomorrow young women everywhere woke up with a physical power that could maim or destroy, thanks to an electrical current emanating from their fingertips. It would certainly give the #MeToo social campaign a surge, and send the Weinsteins of the world scurrying.

That’s the premise behind London author Naomi Alderman’s adrenalin-pumping novel The Power, which earlier this year won the prestigious Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. In Alderman’s gleefully upturned world, internet footage of teenage girls testing out their newfound strength strikes fear among men who believe they’re losing dominance. There are talks and plots reminiscent of 17th-century witch hunts, but in this new world order, women are destined to hold all positions of authority.

The reversal of sexual, physical and emotional violence that the shift evokes is either deeply satisfying or horrifying, depending on your perspective (and probably your gender). Given that it’s so rare to read of women’s bloodthirst, Alderman often gets asked whether she believes social change can only rise through violence. “I say no, because otherwise I wouldn’t have written a novel, I would have gone out into the street with a machete,” she says. “The feminist revolution has been the most successfully bloodless revolution ever. The whole thing has been done by talking and persuading.”

Presented as a work of “historical fiction” via four main characters, The Power is framed similarly — but with a cheeky twist ending — to Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale, a nod to Alderman’s former mentor who was an early champion of the book. Alderman first met Atwood in 2011 through a protégé program sponsored by Rolex. The two connected — they’ve vacationed together, and co-wrote a digital novella about zombies. (Alderman is a subject expert; she is also co-creator of the narrative-driven exercise app Zombies, Run!) It was Atwood who helped the younger writer determine how the story would kick off. “I had originally thought about writing in a world where this had been the case for many years, but Margaret said go for the bit when it’s just happened, and everything’s going crazy.”

Plot-wise, it made sense to Alderman that the phenomenon would spread from teenage girls to older women, but also because she marvels at how today’s young feminists stand their ground. “They haven’t been completely taught that they ought to be keeping their anger down. They’re just angry,” says Alderman. “I’ve been inspired by young women doing gay activism and body-size activism. They’re much braver than we were. It’s like every generation manages to raise girls who are a little less afraid. They are the lifeline we have thrown ourselves.”

Although The Power will satisfy speculative-fiction fans who love The Handmaid’s Tale, Alderman’s novel also stands as a “thought experiment” grounded in her philosophical theorizing. “Why do we value masculine over feminine? Why is there such a difference between the way women and men are in the world, and can I get to a point where there’s a reversal of that through changing this one little thing?” Alderman asks. “This is quite a serious novel of feminist theory, but dressed up with some nice action sequences to sugar the pill. That’s my specialty, sugaring the pill.”

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