“The Shape of Power Is Always the Same”

What does your dream of female empowerment look like? You may have wistfully imagined that such a situation would result in more empathetic politics ...

This is the 11th installment of our series An Engineer Reads a Novel.


What does your dream of female empowerment look like? You may have wistfully imagined that such a situation would result in more empathetic politics, or at least more balanced entertainment—a kind of utopia where women’s voices were heard, respected, conceivably feared on occasion. Maybe you even went full Themyscira. If, however, you come to Naomi Alderman’s The Power hoping for wish fulfillment, you will be disappointed, for her power curdles and corrodes into a nightmare.

In Alderman’s novel, women discover they have the ability to generate an electric charge. First are teenage girls, those societally unsettling, on-the-verge creatures whose emotional and physical chemistry is highly reactive. “I took my power in my hand,” as Emily Dickinson wrote: “and went against the world.” And so the girls do, transforming the planet’s dynamics.

This high concept is executed with dexterity and a wit that counterbalances moments of brutality and horror. This reader particularly enjoyed the way Alderman illustrates the shifting social dynamics with the running commentary and evolving relationship of a pair of TV news hosts. Initially the male cohost has more substantive scripts, while the woman is the decorative “color”; this steadily shifts, until the man explodes at the perceived injustice in the world and especially on set (“It’s changed you,” he accuses his cohost: “It’s made you hard; you’re not even a real woman anymore.”); finally, he’s replaced with a younger, more compliant model.

The Power’s inciting “Day of the Girls” starts with a “strike”—the victim “feels the fear travel down his spine like a hot wire.” Perhaps “there is a snake among the fruit” goes one panicked theory among the witnesses. This echo of the Garden of Eden gets further reinforcement when one of The Power’s four main characters renames herself Eve and becomes a quasi-spiritual leader, the earthly voice of the Goddess (or whoever’s voice Eve hears in her own thoughts), avenging the abuse she experienced at the hands of pious foster parents.

The biblical language lends The Power authority, and lets the reader know we are meant to draw moral instruction from the novel. (A further Edenic reference arrives in the way artifacts of the history that will follow the events of The Power—artifacts that were once electronic tablets and wireless communication devices, but whose purpose future generations can only guess at—are identified by their corporate logo, understood as “Bitten Fruit.”) The “tree” of knowledge—and “the shape of power is … the shape of a tree,” Alderman’s prologue tells us—has yielded one lesson: power corrupts.

Gender allows Alderman to purify the concept of power: because women-with-power and men-without-power is so thoroughly foreign, it’s a “restart” button on all of human history and culture, and we can trace what happens when society’s power dynamic is suddenly inverted. But, apart from a suggestion that one character, politician Margot, is most powerful when she is understood to be restraining herself from using “the power,” this novel isn’t about how feminine power might be different from masculine power. In The Power, we are shown “the republic of the women,” Bessapara, whose borders are assaulted by male armies “on a holy war” to restore the old hierarchies. But the leader of Bessapara doesn’t only want to preserve a women’s homeland, she wants to annihilate the invaders so that “the Holy Mother’s way will spread across the world,” to have “a mighty victory.”

Power corrupts, and the powerful exploit: they take advantage, grow to assume they’ve earned this power and its attendant rights and privileges, brutally seizing them if they’re not offered freely. The social restrictions placed on men in the “republic of the women” seem to be justified by the legacy of male misbehavior: “Their years of violence and degradation have shown that they are not fit to rule or govern.” When Alderman’s empowered women replicate both the violence and the degradation they are attempting to correct, this isn’t what we might hope resulted from smashing the patriarchy. This reader struggled to find The Power’s inexorable slide toward familiar brutality entirely credible.


Sleep and Synchronicity

By David Henkin

Alderman writes: “The shape of power is always the same; it is the shape of a tree. … The shape of power is the outline of a living thing straining outward, sending its fine tendrils a little further, and a little further yet.” This imagery grounds her “power” in the organic, natural world. She adds that this “shape” is also that of “lightning … when it strikes from heaven to earth,” and the “inward trees of nerves and blood vessels,” the “signals carried from our fingers’ ends to the spine to the brain.”

This is Whitman’s “body electric,” come to jolting fruition. Though instead of connecting humans, it’s violently remaking the world order. We’ve always wondered at electricity’s dual nature. Its great evangelist, Edison, showcased it both as light source and as lethal electrocution. Alderman’s imagistic language echoes Hawthorne’s take in The House of the Seven Gables: “Then there is electricity—the demon, the angel, the mighty physical power, the all-pervading intelligence! … Is it a fact—or have I dreamt it—that, by means of electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time?”

In Power Lines, Jennifer Lieberman analyzes the way Twain, Ellison, and others following Hawthorne’s lead used electricity as a metaphor for modernity: both a “life force” capable of illuminating and connecting us, and also a potential “death spark.”1 Twain took up this duality in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, satirizing ideas of “progress” and suggesting that human violence is baked into even our most “civilizing” inventions.2

Like most new technologies, electric lighting and communication spread gradually; the New Deal’s rural electrification initiative was a democratization of technology, a leveling of the field. Power to the people, and so on. Yet utility companies resisted the move as “uneconomic,” and progress required the inducement of government loans and other assistance to farmers’ cooperatives.

It’s also true that energy inequality persists worldwide; and that power plants’ negative impacts tend to have disproportionate effects on particular races and classes.3 Lieberman argues that Americans’ faith in technological “progress” advancing democracy and equity was misplaced, and in particular that it deterred Americans from working to build more equitable socioeconomic systems.4 Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man steals electricity to feel “vital aliveness,” but sees a clear link between electrical progress and regressive white supremacy.5 Ellison’s horrifying scene in which older white men force young black men to fight on an electrified floor portrays the old order having entrenched itself by “weaponizing” electricity.6 Technological developments alone, it’s clear from Lieberman’s analyses, will not reorder this world. As Chanda Prescod-Weinstein has articulated, community and ethics must complement science to make true, equitable, societal progress.7

Alderman’s world is brutal, recognizable, and, alas, still binary. Those with power abuse it. Cataclysm is inevitable.

Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy (Oryx and Crake, 2003; The Year of the Flood, 2009; and MaddAddam, 2013) envisions a future earth blighted by scientific experimentation gone amok, cautioning against the same assumption that technological progress inevitably brings social progress. Atwood has few peers in gracefully embedding feminist social critiques into immensely readable literature, including the ever-unsettling The Handmaid’s Tale (1986). Her influence on Alderman is clear, from the framing conceit that The Power is a recreated history being discussed by future scholars to its preoccupations with social order and the way female sexuality can frighten men.

Alderman names her internal voltage generator, “the strip of striated muscle across the girls’ collarbones which they name the organ of electricity, or the skein for its twisted strands,” perfectly. That skein is more commonly a bundle of yarn for knitting makes this a gendered, nurturing word choice, ripe for Alderman’s inversion. Electricity also strikes me as a perfect choice for the embodiment of this new, mystical, and mystifying power, as it remains somewhat abstract and mysterious—invisible electrons chasing around microscopic racetracks, less obviously physical than steam or gas engines.

This is a novel of what next, not so much of how or why. Alderman makes only a nominal effort to explain the sudden activation of the skein: “a multinational group of scientists is certain now that the power is caused by an environmental build-up of nerve agent that was released during the Second World War.” Modern readers are likely distrustful enough of the military-industrial complex, and of chemicals leaching into our water and air, to buy this. Indeed, despite the speculative conceit of the book, certain aspects will ring familiar to contemporary readers.

The mayor (and mother) Margot, whose political aspirations drive one subplot, conceives of a camp where girls can develop their “power” and use it in service of the nation’s interests. Margot fears she’s lost the election when she is unable to contain her fury at her opponent and uses the power in a debate—“Only a tiny amount, really.” But her victory comes as a surprise to both Margot and the pollsters: “It turns out the voters lied. …They said they respected hard work, commitment and moral courage. They said that the candidate’s opponent had lost their vote the moment she gave up on reasoned discourse and calm authority. But when they went into the voting booths in their hundreds, and thousands, and tens of thousands, they’d thought, You know what, though, she’s strong. She’d show them.”

Another echo of contemporary political discourse comes from the reactionary response of men who feel threatened by the empowering of others. These are “men wearing black—all white men—with balaclavas over their faces.” They enjoy “men’s movie clubs, in living rooms and back rooms of bars. Watching particular kinds of movie over and over again: the ones with explosions and helicopter crashes and guns and muscles and punching.” Such “forgotten men” flock to an Assange-esque agitator (hair bleached “so that it’s very pale, almost white,” eyes “a pallid, watery blue”). “He’s been blogging his mean-spirited, semi-literate, bigoted, angry rhetoric for years but, recently, more and more people … have started to listen.”


The End of the End of the World

By Katherine V. Snyder

A weird omission from Alderman’s world: homosexuality, gender fluidity, transgender identity. “Gender is a shell game,” argues one of Alderman’s future historians, paraphrasing the academic refrain that “gender is a social construct.” But that something is a social construct does not preclude it from also being a real factor in the lives and cultural contexts of individuals. And Alderman could have made her world and her moral more complex by giving fuller voice to those outside the binary, by interrogating the accessibility of power.

An even weirder omission is race. Though the book’s events span the globe, and of its four main characters one is African and one a “mixed-race” American, race does not play into the social hierarchies developed, inverted, and remade here. Even in a speculative novel, this felt like a blind spot and a missed opportunity. (Consider, for example, Margot’s surprising electoral success after she is observed to unleash her own power; would a candidate of a different race or class have fared as well? Leslie Jamison and others would argue: no.8) The Power might’ve been even more powerful if it engaged in a bit of intersectional node analysis. This might not have resulted in a more compassionate or just world, but it could have complicated its dynamics and possibly offered its citizens more options. Alderman’s world is brutal, recognizable, and, alas, still binary. Those with power abuse it. Cataclysm is inevitable.

Engineers must imagine how our designs will fail, to avoid or mitigate every worst-case scenario we can conceive. We have a responsibility to ensure that our designs will fail in ways that reduce risks (“fail-safe”), and that structures contain redundancies and safety factors. In dynamic systems, we include monitors and feedback to ensure that problems are detected and resolved promptly. While unintended consequences are always a risk, we strengthen our work and reduce the risks by first “breaking” it in as many ways as we can imagine.

Art provides an analogous chance to play out what-if questions, to identify pitfalls to avoid (Black Mirror) or what to shoot for (From the Earth to the Moon). Alderman, like Atwood, shows us a range of ways the system—our own status quo, or a speculative reconfiguration—might fall apart; we cannot claim to be unaware of the risks. And we must not assume that a simple flip of the switch will result in social progress. We citizens should apply these lessons to design a more balanced future that distributes power equitably, and that redefines strength; and we must all work together to monitor and maintain that future. icon

  1. Jennifer L. Lieberman, Power Lines: Electricity in American Life and Letters, 1882–1952 (MIT Press, 2017), p. 1.
  2. Ibid., p. 44.
  3. Adrian Wilson et al, “Coal Blooded: Putting Profits before People,” NAACP Report, November 15, 2012.
  4. Lieberman, Power Lines, e.g., p. 38.
  5. Ibid., pp. 184, 218.
  6. Ibid., p. 185.
  7. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, “Just Because It’s ‘Science’ Doesn’t Mean It’s Good,” Slate, January 23, 2018.
  8. Leslie Jamison, “I Used to Insist That I Didn’t Get Angry. Not Anymore,” New York Times Magazine, January 17, 2018; Megan Garber, “All the Angry Ladies,” Atlantic, November 6, 2017.
Featured image: Lightning Storm at Night, Bangkok, Thailand (2015). Photograph by Dominik QN / Unsplash