Bailey's Prize, books, Reading, Science Fiction, Women Writers

“The Power” by Naomi Alderman

“The shape of power is always the same; it is the shape of a tree. Root to tip, central trunk branching and re-branching, spreading wider in ever-thinner, searching fingers. 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.” 

41RUBuZRhZLNaomi Alderman’s electrifying novel “The Power” is framed as a book within a book; it is an historical novel from thousands of years in the future. In a time ill-defined but not to distant from now, girls all over the world begin to discover that they have a power, an electrical charge from within which they can nurture and control to enormous effect. Slowly, powerfully, girls and women awaken their inner power and begin to resist the patriarchies which have dominated the world since time immemorial.

“The younger women can wake it up in the older ones; but from now on all women will have it.”

Through the alternating, interwoven stories of Allie, Margot, Roxy, and Tunde, “The Power” traces the way in which the world reacts as women gain and exert their power. In this dystopian future, it is the men who are afraid.

“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’, in solidarity with those who were killed under the bridges and starved of water.”

Allie is a battered and bruised teenager, bounced from one abusive foster home to the next, harboring her hatred and vengeance with quiet calm.

“Nothing special has happened today; no one can say she was more provoked than usual. It is only that every day one grows a little, every day something is different, so that in the heaping up of days suddenly a thing that was impossible has become possible. This is how a girl becomes a grown woman. Step by step until it is done.”

Within a short time, women’s movements – protests and rebellions – are sweeping the world. Allie is one of the first, but certainly not the only, girls to strike out with her new found power. Roxy, too, has a traumatic childhood, but this daughter of a powerful gangster soon reveals that she may be the most powerful woman on earth. Margot has political ambitions, and she harnesses the tide of female power to carry her to greater heights. And then there is Tunde, a young opportunist whose first hand video footage of some of these world events converts him into a front-line journalist of this cataclysmic change. For all of the characters, there is a constant balancing act about when and how to use their powers, but there is also a common understanding.

“It doesn’t matter that she shouldn’t, that she never would. What matters is that she could, if she wanted. The power to hurt is a kind of wealth.

I have such a love/hate relationship with dystopian novels, probably because my dark and twisty inner thoughts don’t need much encouragement to despair over the future of humanity. Be that as it may, “The Power” is the perfect case for why dystopian novels thrive and why I will continue to devour and be devoured by them. Alderman’s dystopian vision is like quicksilver, mesmerizing and empowering, horrifying and disheartening. She turns the world on its head with such confidence and courage, taking the “what ifs” to their very extreme. Her writing is Atwood-esque in all the best ways. “The Power” is brilliant and well deserving of its nomination for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.

“There is a part in each of us which holds fast to the old truth: either you are the hunter or you are the prey. Learn which you are. Act accordingly. Your life depends upon it.”

Bonus excerpt that is eerily prescient and extra cringeworthy:

“It’s only after the exit polls that they start to think something might be wrong, and even then – I mean they can’t be this wrong. But they can. It turns out the voters lied. Just like the accusations they always throw at hard-working public servants, the goddamned electorate turned out to be goddamned liars themselves. 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.”

Black history, books, Historical Fiction, People of Color, Reading, Science Fiction, Women Writers

“Kindred” by Octavia E. Butler

Octavia Butler was one of the mothers of Science Fiction. The rare black woman in a kindred-octavia-e-butler-124291_408_600predominantly white male world, she forged a sacred place for herself in the genre that remains a decade after her death.

“Kindred” is the story of Dana, a young black woman, and her husband, Kevin. As these two writers and newlyweds are settling into their first home in 1970s California, their tranquility is abruptly turned on its end. While shelving books in their new living room, Dana suddenly vanishes, finding herself riverside where a boy is drowning. Momentarily stunned, Dana springs into action, saves the boy, and finds herself facing the barrel of a rifle, held by the boy’s angry father. A moment of nausea and dizziness, and Dana is back in her living room, soaking wet and terrified. Shaken and disbelieving, Kevin and Dana try to understand what has happened.

Dana, it becomes clear, is traveling through space and time to a plantation in 1800s Maryland, “[n]ot only to insure the survival of one accident-prone small boy, but to insure my family’s survival,  my own birth.” Rufus Weylin, the boy from the river, appears to be Dana’s ancestor who is somehow able to summon her when he is imperiled.

“‘I was home; then suddenly, I was here helping you. I don’t know how it happens – how I move that way – or when it’s going to happen. I can’t control it.'”

Rufus, at first a hapless young boy, grows to become a troubled and brutal man, heir to his father’s plantation and bigotry. Upon each return, Dana must not only save Rufus’ life, but she must also navigate the constant dangers and degradations of slavery until she is “called” home.

By employing a modern, educated black woman who is married to a white man, Butler is able to probe deeply the chasms of our country’s racial divide and the ‘progress’ we’ve made. Dana stands out in the antebellum South; she is eyed with suspicion by blacks and whites alike – for her mannerisms, her dress, and her speech. Many of the Weylin plantation’s slaves distrust her, believing that she is ‘acting white’ or betraying her race. This lack of confidence makes her ‘trips’ to Maryland that much harder, for she has few allies or confidantes.

         “Carrie made quick waving-aside gestures, her expression annoyed. She came over to me and wiped one side of my face with her fingers – wiped hard. I drew back, and she held her fingers in front of me, showed me both sides. But for once, I didn’t understand.
        Frustrated, she took me by the hand and led me out to where Nigel was chopping firewood. There, before him, she repeated the face-rubbing gesture, and he nodded.
         She means it doesn’t come off, Dana,’ he said quietly. ‘The black. She means the devil with people who say you’re anything but what you are.'”

No futuristic, dystopian tale, “Kindred” employs our own barbaric past to impart wisdom and critique. It is, like many stories of time-travel, a morality tale; but unlike many of its kinsmen, “Kindred” has historical import. It seems to me that Butler is celebrating how far we have come as a nation, while forcing the reader to acknowledge how intertwined our past is with our present and how near that past lies. Our history as a nation is a complicated one. Our inheritance and our accomplishments have not come without great costs, nor have they come without disparate privilege.

“Kindred” is full of language that is plain spoken, sometimes even pedestrian, a feature particularly striking in a narrative built around two writers. Though the prosaic language  can be moderately disappointing and even off-putting, the book is exceptional for its concept and execution. The twists and turns of Butler’s narrative are expert and irresistible.

Originally published in 1979, “Kindred” was Butler’s big break and it is easy to see why. This story doesn’t bind Butler to the challenges of world building that so often limit Science Fiction’s audience. By employing history and a well-known narrative, Butler’s “other” is not at all alien. The horrors of our not so distant past are enough to frighten and engage us; the result is pure literature that transcends genre.