World-building is hard. A major reason why I am chary of most stories that posit a mixed-size society is that many authors neglect to consider the varied and complex ways people would react to an invasion of giants or a shrinking plague. Some people will adjust faster than others, most everyone will project their pre-existing beliefs onto the new situation, and many will refuse to change or acknowledge the new reality at all. Things will get messy.
I am particularly skeptical of scenarios in which size-change affects only one gender. There is almost never any plausible reason for this, and it makes the author’s agenda/fetish that much more transparent. Aside from the size differential itself, I prefer as much realism as possible in my size fantasy, whether in regard to characters, motives, plot, or background. It simply makes the fantasy more vivid for me.
It is with this goal in mind that I would like to briefly discuss the new novel The Power by Naomi Alderman. The premise is that women start developing a new bodily organ called a skein which gives them the capacity to biologically generate electrical charges, much like an electric eel. The strength of these charges can vary from pleasant tingles to fatal shocks. A woman’s skein is subcutaneous, lying across her collarbone, and when not in use is not visible. Skeins first appear in teenage girls, and for a while the girls keep this power secret while they experiment and try to master it. Eventually there are fatalities, some accidental and some not so much. Then it is discovered that young girls can “awaken” skeins in older women, and all newborn girls have them, as well.
Through a handful of female characters and one male character, Alderman explores many different approaches to what this new power means to each of us and to all of us. The adaptations are tentative at first, but soon the “Great Change” accelerates and everyone struggles to keep up as the end of the Patriarchy bears down. What is enticing is Alderman’s eye for the little arenas where the Power makes itself felt. It starts in the schools, but then it spreads to families, workplaces, crime, politics, and religion. It’s subtle, until suddenly it changes everything.
The framing device for the novel is that it is a work of “fanciful” fiction written long after the Power has transformed society, thousands of years after “The Day of the Girls.” The chapter breaks are annotated with “archaeological” finds from across the millennia and commentary on what they portend about social change. The likely most notorious of these is below:
Margaret Atwood—who was a mentor for Alderman—famously said, “Men are afraid women will laugh at them, women are afraid men will kill them.” Fear is a primary (and primal) motivation, and if you want to make your characters plausible and complex, one approach is to ask of each character what they fear and why.
Alderman’s novel is not monolithic; there is no privileged perspective, no moral argument, only the humble acknowledgment that no one is ready for these changes, none of which can be stopped. Despite conflicting interpretations by different characters, The Power is not simply a war between the genders. Women cow and kill each other with their powers, men deny and rage at and desperately witness what is happening, boys and girls adjust faster than their parents, and women and men find new ways to love each other.
I devoured this book over one weekend. It ought to resonate with anyone with the slightest interest in femdom, if only as a cautionary tale. This is very much not a story of “the women take over and everything is better.” If I were to review it for a journal, my title might well be “Nice Girls Finish Last.” Alderman’s views of personal and political power are detailed and unsparing. I particularly commend it to anyone who is attempting to realistically portray a society disrupted by sweeping biological or technological changes, such as widespread size-differential.