‘Feminist sci-fi’ novel wins major award

Power to the person: “Men look at me with tremendous fear,” says Alderman. © Getty

In The Power, women are suddenly endowed with a terrifying skill. The novel is a “devastating” tale of sex, fear and control. Can sci-fi tell us as much about society as realist novels?

“She throws her head back and pushes her chest forward and lets go a huge blast right into the centre of his body. The rivulets and streams of red scarring run across his chest and up around his throat. She’d put her hand on his heart and stopped him dead.”

Across the world, women suddenly acquire the power to electrocute others at will. They soon understand the control this gives them over society. Men begin to avoid them on the street; religions are reimagined around female prophets; countries succumb to revolutions.

This is the thrilling premise of Naomi Alderman’s The Power, which has won the prestigious Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. Alderman describes her novel as “feminist science fiction”. By reversing power relations between the sexes, she highlights important truths about our society. “How much of gender is in our expectations of violence?” she asks.

The Power has been compared to the work of Alderman’s mentor Margaret Atwood, whose novel The Handmaid’s Tale depicts a dystopian country in which women’s rights are taken away from them. But these are only two works in a long tradition of sci-fi books that comment on the society of their time.

As totalitarianism spread through Europe, George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World featured people whose behaviour is tightly controlled, whether through fear or conditioning. Back in 1666, when monarchies ruled, Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World imagined a peaceful land in which a human empress presides over talking animals.

Indeed, sometimes sci-fi does not only reflect reality — it shapes it. For instance, H.G. Wells’s 1913 novel The World Set Free predicted the use of nuclear weapons. Leo Szilard, one of the physicists behind the invention of the atom bomb, said Wells influenced him.

Yet sci-fi is often looked down on in the world of literary criticism. As The Guardian points out, books like The Power are “rarely seen on literary fiction prize lists”. Is it an inferior genre after all?

Worlds of wisdom

Sci-fi is fun, say some, and sometimes informative. But even at its best, it can never be as moving or as hard-hitting as realist novels. The latter deal with actual problems — racism, bullying, disease — in a way that people can instantly relate to. Sci-fi distracts the reader with its strange, fanciful inventions. It is less serious.

Nonsense, reply others. By showing us things as they could be, sci-fi (like its close cousin fantasy) makes us reflect on our world as it actually is. If done well, its inventions do not distract the reader — if anything, they make the book’s themes more vivid and memorable. Sci-fi can be just as serious as realism, and more entertaining.

You Decide

  1. What is your favourite novel of all time, and why?
  2. Is it useful to classify novels by genre?

Activities

  1. Write a short story titled Tomorrow Came Early. It can be in any style or genre you want.
  2. Choose a novel and make a video review of it, like The Good Book Club’s in Become An Expert. You can work in groups if you prefer.

Some People Say...

“Science fiction writers foresee the inevitable.”

Isaac Asimov

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Naomi Alderman’s win did not come out of nowhere. The Power is the British author’s fourth novel; her debut Disobedience, about an Orthodox Jewish woman who has a same-sex affair, is currently being adapted into a major movie. Alderman has also written a tie-in novel for the TV show Doctor Who and is the co-creator of the hit iPod game Zombies, Run!
What do we not know?
Fans and writers of science fiction struggle to define the genre. Sci-fi novels tend to be set in a future world that looks very different from ours, due to progress in science and technology. Some call sci-fi “the literature of change”. Margaret Atwood distinguishes between sci-fi, which imagines the impossible, and “speculative fiction,” which describes things that could happen, but have not happened yet.

Word Watch

Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction
The award is handed out annually to the best novel written in English by a female author. The winner gets $39,000.
Margaret Atwood
One of the world’s most successful living authors, the 77-year-old Canadian has published dozens of novels, poetry collections, essays and one graphic novel. She officially mentored Alderman for one year.
The Handmaid’s Tale
The novel was recently turned into a well-reviewed TV series.
Totalitarianism
A system of government in which the state has great power over its citizens, such as Stalin’s Soviet Russia or Hitler’s Germany.
Margaret Cavendish
An English aristocrat and prolific writer, Cavendish was nicknamed “Mad Madge” on account of her eccentric style. The Blazing World has been described as “utopian fiction”: a work that portrays an ideal world in the mind of the author.
Influenced
Having come up with some of the basic technology behind the bomb, Szilard campaigned for it not to be used on human targets. He later wrote that Wells showed him “what the liberation of atomic energy on a large scale would mean.”