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The Biscuit Review No.3: The Power by Naomi Alderman

The video and podcast versions of this review are at the bottom of this page.

The Power is a provocative near future science fiction novel that poses a “what if?” scenario and dares you to confront the world around you and your place in it. It is quite literally shocking, as well as a world-hopping thriller with graphic action and uncomfortable moral choices. Could it also be the smash hit TV show of 2023?

Streaming platforms’ love of taking existing work and adapting them for blockbuster TV shows looks set to continue in 2023. Alongside Daisy Jones and The Six, The Last Thing He Told Me, and The White House Plumbers (the title doesn’t really help that one), we also get Prime Video’s The Power by Naomi Alderman. A book that seems made for a TV adaptation.

The Power is set 5000 years in the future and in our present day. In the future, a male author compiles a manuscript that documents events in the early 21st Century that completely changed society. Young women around the world - almost simultaneously - begin to develop skeins across their collar bones. These skeins are a biological development that give them the ability to exert electricity as a weapon.

Alderman wastes zero time in revealing what “the power” is. This “no, we are not hanging about here” style is something it has in common with outbreak stories, or zombie tales - a world wide event presents a scenario that threatens civilisation as we know it. It also shares the common trait of presenting multiple characters and storylines and then races off shouting “come on, keep up” as it speeds away. In fact, it might be advisable to keep your own glossary of characters to refer to as you zip along as you might wonder - who is this one again? This is another aspect that makes me say it seems like a book that is made for TV - you can picture the cut to a new location and a title informing you what day it is, or what country we are in.

As gangster’s daughter Roxy realises how she might reinvent her life with this new ability, we see Allie overcome trauma to reframe what is happening as divine intervention. Before we can settle in with the domestic drama of one and the philosophical reasoning of the other we are off to political intrigue in America and Eastern Europe and uprisings in Asia and the middle east. It is probably here that you are due a content warning warning about the graphic sexual content with torture, rape, and murder falling quickly inline like blood drenched dominoes.

In the 7 years since The Power was released, how we are defined by our biology and our sense of self is more relevant than ever and you could easily use elements of this book and claim a trans allegory or trans erasure. It is hard to imagine that the TV adaptation won’t explore this further and add more than just the one intersex character that is in the novel.

The huge scope of the novel could easily have stretched to a 500+ page tome but this leaner version helps reinforce how quickly events happen. Although there are similarities to the outbreak genre, the neat twist here is that you aren’t dealing with something that is contagious, that you can prevent from spreading. After the familiar attempts to stop, quell, and protect - the novel moves into a different area that becomes the main topic - how can it be used ?

Alderman talked in interviews about the mentorship scheme that paired her with Magaret Atwood. With that knowledge you could claim 20/20 vision of stylistic similarities - the poetic documentary prose, or a sense of emotional detachment from some of the events - but for me it is in the areas she chooses to stage conflict - what arenas would this fight be fought? It was no surprise when I was digging around in my research to find an interview with PBS in America during which Alderman talks about how she discussed with Margaret Atwood finding “where the pressure points might be.” The arenas she picks for these pressure points are fascinating and varied and all too believable - although after collating my own thoughts here, I'm keen to find out what people from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East thought about the scenarios she has imagined.

In the same PBS interview, Alderman talks about wanting to give female characters exciting action and fight scenes. We get those. A lot. Graphically. And there is a reason for this.

Perhaps deliberately, there is a double play on the famous quote “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Science, politics, and religion wage a familiar war over ownership and control, and this is played out via some compelling characters that are often more nuanced than you might expect. Sure, we get villains and others we could asterix as “heroes” but they are generally all warped by their own desires.

And it is here that we consider what is probably the most provocative - or controversial, depending on your outrage barometer - element of the novel. What would people do - regardless of their biology, race, religion, gender, socio-economic background, geographic location, or anything else you can think of - if they had the physical power over other people? What would you do? Are some groups of people inherently predisposed to be “good” or “kind”? Or do we all have a base level of violence? It is an uncomfortable question.

The answers this book offers about human nature might be shocking and unpalatable, but as Alderman says herself, if you take out the new power she invented, the acts of violence committed are already around us in the world today and is it just doing what all good dramas should and holding a mirror up to our society? Perhaps it is more to do with the type of female characters Aderman wants to see in fiction. This is her talking during a Facebook live event for BBC Radio 4.

We have to be able to imagine women as villains, people talk about the ‘strong female character’, I would rather see more strong female villains than I am particularly excited about seeing women who know kickboxing.”

Whilst The Biscuit Reviews is generally me chatting about things I like, I can obviously look back and see flaws in what I read, listen to, and watch. And there is plenty in The Power that could annoy - even anger - some people as well as the regular plot and style choices that can put people off. I’ll also confess to being blind to most flaws whilst I was reading it because I was caught up in the story and characters and wanting to know what was going to happen.

The TV series on Prime Video has been adapted by Alderman herself and as she hinted there were many more stories to tell, it would not be a great surprise if what we see is quite different to what we read. Indeed, it would not surprise me if the action in the novel is just the first series of a much bigger story to come - much like what happend with The Handmaid's Tale.

Aside from my main hope that the soundtrack doesn’t features a certain song by Snap! is that I manage to avoid the clickbait headlines and ensuing outrage that its broadcast will no doubt incite.

Biscuit rating: Garibaldi - offers a different experience and plenty to chew over.

You can find the gallery with the biscuit rating system on the main page where you'll also find previous blogs and episodes of The Biscuit Reviews.

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