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I was surprised to see the book framed by Samuel 8.
The people came to Samuel and said: Place a King over us, to guide us.
And Samuel said to them, “This is what a King will do if he reigns over you: he’ll take your sons and make them run with his chariots and horses. He’ll dispose them however he wants; he’ll make them commanders of thousands or captains of fifties, he’ll send them to plow, to reap, to forge his weapons and his chariots. He’ll take your daughters to make perfume for him, or cook his food or do his baking. He’ll take your fields and your vineyards and your olive groves—oh he’ll take the very best of those and give them to his cronies. He’ll take much more….He’ll take one tenth of your flocks and you yourselves will become his slaves. On that day, believe me, you will cry out for relief from this King, the King you asked for, but the Lord will not answer you on that day.”
In the novel by Naomi Alderman, titled The Power, she creates an alternative future, where a few historians are discussing the research and evidence of a history before the Cataclysm. Sometime in the early 21st century, young women awakened a power of electricity that gave them, well, electrical power. The younger women showed the older women how to awaken this power, and soon the world is full of women who have a distinct physical advantage over men. It begins with women who are being abused and used by men and they finally have the power to fight back. And then there are women fighting with men, fighting with each other, helping other women, and everything in between. Alderman’s book follows the story of a few different characters as the world reacts and convulses over this radical change, this Cataclysm, to show how pernicious power can be, no matter who wields it.
The historians in the novel are puzzled by the evidence of a world where men could have been soldiers or in charge. Who could imagine that, they wondered? There’s so little evidence…just gaps in the historical record. To imagine a world that was patriarchal was illogical for them. Apparently, after the Cataclysm, women worked hard to erase the history of the world before women had all the power. According to the historian, Neil, “we don’t have original manuscripts dating back more than a thousand years. All the books we have from before the Cataclysm have been re-copied hundreds of times. That’s a lot of occasions for errors to be introduced. And not just errors. All of the copyists would have had their own agendas. For more than two thousand years, the only people re-copying were nuns in convents. I don’t think it’s at all a stretch to suggest that they picked works to copy that supported their viewpoint and just let the rest moulder into flakes of parchment.”
It is clear that Alderman is suggesting an alternative history, much like the dystopian style of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Alderman deliberately pointed out all the ways that women, when given power over men, acted just like men. She suggests that power is the problem, in the hands of women or in the hands of men. In particular, the historian, Naomi writes, “a world run by men would be more kind, more gentle, more loving and naturally nurturing. Have you thought about the evolutionary psychology of it? Men have evolved to be strong worker homestead-keepers, while women –with babies to protect from harm –have had to become aggressive and violent. They few partial patriarchies that have ever existed in human society have been very peaceful places.” Touché.
It was smart and thought-provoking to read, of course, but I was struck by the use of Samuel 8. Perhaps Alderman’s real message is that humans want someone in charge, even though they know it will not go well. And yet they still beg for a King (or Queen).
Naomi Alderman, The Power, (New York: Back Bay Books, 2016).