I’ve just finished Naomi Alderman’s novel The Power (2016) after it was recommended by several colleagues. It was a quick-moving, enjoyable read, and potentially a good ‘gateway’ novel to science fiction/speculative fiction, especially for women who don’t see what the genre has to offer them. It felt like an update on the 1970s feminist science fiction stories that turned around sexist norms and gender roles in order to enable the reader to examine them in a new light. It can be considered science fiction rather than fantasy due to the brief explanation of origins of the electro-power that women gain access to – that during WWII a certain chemical was put into the water supply and caused this extra part to grow in their necks. I also noticed several parallels with the characters in the later Dune series books that feature the Honored Matres, and I offer some brief comparisons below.
Power as a Corrupting Force
The Dune series is certainly concerned with power, but in the last two books the series takes an interesting turn to explore how a lust for power might corrupt women. Many readers never get to these last two books of the six-book saga, and they have hardly been touched by academic critics. But they offer a group of women characters that is a clear foil to the Bene Gesserit and worthy of more study. Heretics of Dune and Chapterhouse: Dune introduce the characters known as the Honored Matres, some kind of amalgamation-gone-wrong of the Fish Speakers from God Emperor Leto II’s all-female army in God Emperor of Dune and the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood. Unlike the Bene Gesserit – who are powerful yet prefer to work behind the scenes and are not shown killing and torturing others – the Honored Matres are characterized as sadistic and evil, potentially even more so than the Bene Tleilaxu, who up until that point usually occupy that slot. They have perfected a way of turning men into their slaves, ‘bonding’ them so they obey the Honored Matres in everything.
The Honored Matres share similar attributes with the Harkonnens, the villains of the first novel who delight in enslaving, torturing, and killing others. One of the functions of the Honored Matres seems to be showing the reader that it is not one’s gender that makes one more or less violent; that anyone can become corrupt if they give in to a lust for acquiring and maintaining power at any cost.
In The Power, power becomes a corrupting force as women discover how much control they can gain over others by exercising their new-found electric shock abilities. We see women doing a range of behaviors, from merely zapping others all the way to torturing and raping them. Like the Honored Matres, they appear to primarily use their abilities on men, but in a world that resembles Earth, they justify this by remembering how long men have been violent and aggressive toward women. Some of the first women to rise up are those who had been trafficked and had virtually no agency in their own lives. But although some might be after equality, others are after revenge and domination. This raises one of the key questions in feminist thought and in criticism of the feminist movement – are women trying to attain equality, however that’s defined, or do they really want to be elevated over men?
“He will not stop screaming. Two of the women take him by the throat and send a paralysis into his spine. One squats on top of him. She pulls off his trousers. He is not unconscious.” (The Power, pg 280)
We know this scene, but almost always it is the reverse. For those who wonder if a world ruled by women would be different, as long as their socialization remained the same, this book seems to say, there would still be violence and assault and torture.
How the women in The Power acquire their power is explained as the result of some chemical dumped in the water supply during World War II that caused an extra part to grow on their necks. We first see young girls being able to electrocute others with their hands, twisting something inside them to make their ‘skein’ work. As they learn how to control it, and show other women how to access their power, they are better able to use it as a weapon.
In a similar way, the Honored Matres acquire their power through mainly organic means. This is one of the features of the Dune series that makes it different from other science fiction, which often features a need for external technology to bolster humankind’s abilities. Being some kind of offshoot of the Bene Gesserit, the Honored Matres have similar skills in hand-to-hand combat, notably a deadly lightning-fast kick, and abilities with vocal control over others. They also have knowledge of poisons, although they appear to lack the Bene Gesserit’s ability to neutralize them. The Honored Matres do rely on some external tech — we see them employing the torture device of the T-Probe to try to extract information out of the Bene Gesserit’s military commander, Miles Teg.
The end result for women in all of these novels is that knowing they have this power and can use it whenever they want affords them the security to be able to go where they want and do what they want. In The Power, it is men who end up having a curfew and having to be careful of themselves around women, because they are now the ones who lack power. This reversal of the usual scenario for women—who are told to not go out alone or late at night, or to be careful what they wear—enables the novel to highlight the reality of women’s real everyday lives. What might the world be like, it asks us to consider, if the situation were reversed?
Another feature the Dune series and The Power share is the gender essentialism, that is, the idea that the powerful abilities are linked to women in some way. The Dune series never explicitly states this, and we see a few select men in earlier novels gaining Bene Gesserit abilities as taught to them by their mothers. However, because it does not show any male Honored Matres, we associate their abilities and their corrupted use of them with women. In The Power, there is a more explicit link to genetics, with only a handful of individuals (implied to be intersex) who are men having the extra feature in their neck. They are treated as anomalies. Such gender essentialism appears to be necessary for the novels to achieve the aim of highlighting the effects of power – we may be so used to seeing powerful men exerting their will on others that it takes the reversal of having powerful women doing so to make us think about why this is and what might be done to change the situation.
A Tsunami Change
“In Delhi, he follows behind a pack of women rampaging through Janpath market. There was a time that a woman could not walk alone here, not if she were under seventy, and not with certainty even then. There had been protests for many years, and placards, and shouted slogans. These things rise up and afterwards it is as if it had never been. Now the women are making what they call ‘a show of force’ with those who were killed under the bridge and starved of water.
Tunde interviews a woman in the crowd. She had been here for the protests three years earlier; es, she had held up her banner and shouted and signed her petitions. ‘It was like being part of a wave of water,’ she says. ‘A wave of spray from the ocean feels powerful, but it is only there for a moment, the sun dries the puddles and the water is gone. Then you feel maybe it never happened. That is how it was with us. The only wave that changes anything is a tsunami. You have to tear down the houses and destroy the land if you want to be sure no one will forget you.’” (The Power, pg 133)
This quote alludes to the wave analogy for the feminist movement and implies that a more powerful force is needed than protests and the like to create lasting change. In the Dune series, this is also true in a way, since the planet-destroying, male-enslaving force of the Honored Matres is what changes the dynamics of the universe and forces everyone else to take a new path.
I think The Power would make for an accessible and thought-provoking text in the classroom. Several of its viewpoint characters are relatable young women, and it could offer a new way into the introduction of certain feminist topics.