It follows that there are two ways for the nature and use of human power to change. One is that an order might issue from the palace, a command unto the people saying “It is thus.” But the other, the more certain, the more inevitable, is that those thousand points of light should each send a new message. When the people change, the palace cannot hold.Five thousand years have passed between our present and the present in The Power. The novel is a "historical" look back at how we got from where we are now to where they are then: a society where women hold all the power, and a world where men were in charge is practically unimaginable. We get to watch the transition--the period in the not-so-distant-future where girls start to discover that they have The Power: their bodies can generate electric charges that can hurt, maim, or even kill others.
Alderman has worked with Margaret Atwood, and it shows. The Power could almost be read as an alternative reality to The Handmaid's Tale. While this reads a little less literary, Alderman is similarly dark and incisive. The horrors of womanhood, rather than being taken to Atwood's extremes, are turned on their heads. Yes, women are empowered here, but this isn't a fairy tale. Alderman's women, even the good ones, aren't simple heroines. They're angry and violent--at their own histories of abuse, but also, clearly, at the millennia of human history that have gotten them there.
I have some trouble taking books with sci-fi style premises seriously. I think this is my own blind spot, and not a reflection on Alderman or her writing, but I think it kept me from reading this as a piece of literature. Alderman's prose moves quickly and she sells the premise brilliantly. I was never lost or confused, never doubted for a moment that this could, on some level, happen. The novel focuses on the first few months of the shift; we don't get to see the full unraveling, but the reactions of women--both individually and collectively--felt honest and real.
I really enjoyed this book. I couldn't put it down (which may also be part of why I couldn't fully take it seriously), and Alderman's imagining of what women would do if given the reigns was thought-provoking and terrifying. As a meditation on power and who wields it, it was one of the more thoughtful books I've read in a while. As a dystopic (or utopic depending on how aggressively feminist you're feeling!) novel, it's thrilling.