The beginning of a year is usually a time for me to catch up with the best of the previous year’s books that I wasn’t able to get my hands on. A few weeks ago, I finally read Naomi Alderman’s The Power, set in a world where women and girls the world over discover they can produce powerful electrical shocks with a hitherto undiscovered organ on their collarbone, resulting in a complete reversals of the power dynamics between the sexes. The book is gripping, thought-provoking, and would probably reward multiple re-reads—but I’m not going to review it, for a bunch of reasons, but mostly because it’s already received plenty of attention. (And also because, as far I’m concerned, the definitive review has already been written, i.e. Amal El-Mohtar’s over at the New York Times, with interesting addenda over at her blog.) However, I thought it might be a good idea to suggest a few titles for anyone who read it, enjoyed it, and hungers for books (and podcasts) that are in some ways like it and/or might provide you with an interesting new perspective on some of the questions it raises. Without further ado:
BRIAN K. VAUGHN & PIA GUERRA, Y: THE LAST MAN
Let’s get the obvious one out of the way first. Y: The Last Man is a comic book series that begins when a mysterious disease suddenly kills every single man and male animal on the planet—with the exception of the titular “last man”, Yorick Brown (and his pet monkey). It’s been a few years since I finished reading this series, so my memory is a little rusty, but I remember it being action-packed, deftly plotted, rich in twists and surprise revelations, with lots of witty dialogue and fun ideas. Also, it ended many years ago, so you can read all the volumes in one go, rather than having two wait a bajillion years to find out how the latest cliffhanger is resolved.
SVETLANA ALEXIEVICH, THE UNWOMANLY FACE OF WAR (TRANSL. RICHARD PEVEAR & LARISSA VOLOKHONSKY)
The Power’s framing device is that the novel is actually written several thousand years after the events it recounts, a fictionalised retelling of events that really did happen in the book’s universe. And the novel’s author is a historian named Neil, who wishes to shed light on what he thinks human society might have been like before women took over. Naomi, the older, more authoritative author who’s taken him under her wing, cannot quite believe that, before the book’s events, there really were male police officers and soldiers. This appears a little funny to the reader, of course, but, equally of course, there are plenty of real-life examples of “forgotten history” that has been suppressed because of its protagonists’ gender (and, often, because the protagonists’ actions are seen as difficult to conceive in light of their gender). A prime example of this is Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War, a women’s history of the Soviet Union’s involvement in World War II, which Alexievich was not allowed to publish in 1983, and then could only publish in a heavily censored version in 1985, because the accounts she’d collected (especially ones to do with women actually fighting in battle, as well the grimmer aspects of life in war) contradicted official narratives. Indeed, some of the women she interviews explicitly tell her that their husbands wouldn’t be happy if they knew all the stories they were sharing with her, and a few are forced to self-censure because their husbands are nearby and could hear things that would displease them. This is the third time in a month that I recommend this book on my blog, and for good reason!
Read my full review here.
ROSEMARY JOYCE, ANCIENT BODIES, ANCIENT LIVES
As a recovering archaeologist, one of my favourite things about The Power were the illustrations at the end of each chapter—which, in one case, were almost exact reproductions of two actual figurines from the real-life site of Mohenjo-Daro, in India. In our world, the male figure is commonly known as the “Priest King”, while the female figurine is commonly known as the “Dancing Girl”. But in the book’s world, by the time women have gained the upper hand on men and have been ruling for thousands of years, the female figurine is newly interpreted as the “Priestess Queen” and the male as the “Serving Boy”. The way contemporary gender norms affect archaeologists’ understanding of the past is an absolutely fascinating field of study (one of the few that I still miss a little), and if you’re interested in learning more about it, I’d direct you to the work of UC Berkeley Professor Rosemary Joyce. She wrote a short book meant for non-specialists, Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives, and if you have access to a good University library you might find a copy, but if you can’t, I’d recommend checking out her blog by the same name. It hasn’t been updated in two years, but it contains many thought-provoking posts, often dissecting the way the media manhandles archaeological discoveries that challenge traditional Western gender conventions.
MARIA TURTSCHANINOFF, NAONDEL (TRANSL. A.A. PRIME)
CN: rape, domestic abuse.
Naondel would make a very interesting read straight after The Power because it tells almost the exact opposite story (and, at the same time, mirrors one of the novel’s subplots): it’s about a single man’s quest for magical power that he can either make his own and transform into political and sexual power, or destroy it so no one else can use it—and, in making this power his own or destroying it, he often ends up taking it away from the women who narrate the story. Like The Power, Naondel ventures into some dark places, and is unafraid to deal with topics such as rape and domestic abuse—but, unlike The Power, Turtschaninoff’s book is much more hopeful and optimistic, featuring many persuasively complex friendships between its female characters (which something else The Power doesn’t have, interestingly—except perhaps for the friendship between Roxie and Allie/Mother Eve).
Read my full review here.
MALKA ANN OLDER, INFOMOCRACY and NULL STATES
Part of the fun of the first half or so of The Power—before things turn sour—is the frequent glimpses we get of how the book’s events affect all the different corners of the world, particularly through the eyes of globe-trotting Nigerian journalist Tunde. That is also one of my favourite thing about Malka Ann Older’s ongoing Centenal Trilogy—whose first and second books, Infomocracy and Null States respectively, are taut political thrillers whose heroes and villains hop from Sudan to Switzerland to Mali to Mongolia. And this is no mere literary tourism: for one thing, Older has seen and experienced much of the world herself through more than a decade’s worth of humanitarian work in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Uganda, Darfur, Japan, and Mali; moreover, in the world of her books, national borders have almost entirely ceased to exist, and almost the entire planet is parcelled out into community of 100,000 people named centenals, all of which can vote for any party on the planet at global elections held every ten years—so it makes sense for these books to globe-trot as much as they do. In fact, that’s another thing in common the Centenal books have with The Power: fascinating what-if scenarios leading to fascinating worldbuilding.
Read my full review of Null States here.
MATT FRACTION & CHIP ZDARSKY, ODY-C vols. 1 & 2
The world of ODY-C is perhaps the logical consequence of what would happen to the world of The Power millennia into the future—humanity would be an intergalactic civilization where men are confined to their own weird planet, and women mostly reproduce and enjoy sex through a third gender. ODY-C is an ongoing comic series, but the first two volumes, Off to Far Ithicaa and Sons of the Wolf, are already available at good libraries and bookstores. Both volumes are relatively self-contained, so you don’t have to read 1 in order to appreciate 2. However, for a while I hesitated to include them in this list, because they are so profoundly weird. But then I thought that all you need to appreciate them is just a little preparation: first, read a short interview with the creators, so you know what they’re trying to accomplish; second, though it may not look like it, all the text is in verse, so it needs to be read with a certain rhythm (don’t worry, you’ll figure it out). If you don’t read about the authors’ intentions and don’t treat the words as verse, your experience of these books might be frustrating. I didn’t do either when I first read Off to Far Ithicaa, and I was mostly confused. I hope this doesn’t intimidate you, because, for one thing, these are comics, so they don’t actually take that long to read, and, also, it’s a miracle that something as weird as this is even being published, and it should be supported. Off to Far Ithicaa is a relatively straightforward retelling of Odysseus’s adventures up till his encounter with Polyphemus the Cyclops, while the more ambitious Sons of the Wolf is a nuanced meditation on the sexual violence that is so frequent in world mythology, mixing the adventures of Hercules, Sumerian myth, the post-Iliad story of Helen and her husband Menelaus (gender-swapped, of course), as well as a bit of Scheherazade.
ROSE EVELETH, FLASH FORWARD PODCAST
Another great thing I loved about The Power was the fact that, instead of being set in a world ruled by women, it spends most of its time how that world came to be. This also what Flash Forward does: every episode Rose Eveleth explores a specific possible or not-so-possible future scenario, opening with a few fictional “scenes”, then talking to a broad range of experts (including sci-fi authors) about how that future scenario might come to be and what it may really be like. Some of my all-time favourite episodes (which I’d recommend you start with) include Unpawful (about a future where keeping pets has become illegal), Popnonymous (popstars no longer perform in person, but through avatars), Love at First Bot (sex bots), and Face Off (people have stopped being able to recognise each other’s faces). And, in keeping with the themes of The Power, you might want to check out Bye Bye Binary (gender is no longer relevant) and A Womb Away from Home (about artificial wombs).
ANN LECKIE, ANCILLARY JUSTICE
By the end of The Power, we realise that a world ruled by women may not much better than one ruled by men—because humanity’s garbage anyway. But what about a world where gender no longer matters? The answer, at least according to Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy, is nope! Gender is an irrelevant category in the intergalactic empire known as The Radch—and in order to convey this, Leckie only uses the third person feminine to refer to her characters, and I think she’s on the record somewhere explaining why she didn’t use “they” or some other gender-neutral pronoun—but The Radch is still an empire, with all the violence and general nefariousness that being an empire entails. Like ODY-C, I found Ancillary Justice a little difficult to get into at first (it’s harder sci-fi than I’m used to reading), but ultimately more than rewarding.
Finally, readers, if you have any suggestions for books that would pair well with The Power, you’re very welcome to leave them in the comment section below!