The Power

UnknownYour hands will be cool but your mind may receive a jolt when you read Naomi Alderman’s electrifying and timely book, The Power.  In this dystopian world, Alderman asks  – what if women had all the power? What if all those women who were attacked by sexual predators could just zap them away with volts of electricity?

Leadership skills are helpful in this futuristic world, but electric shocks delivered to the uncooperative offer the most persuasive and sometimes deadly incentives.  Alderman frames her story around the draft of a novel written by an historian in the future; the novel begins and ends with letters asking for and receiving short reviews of the novel’s believability.  The historian is tracing the origin of the set of nerve cells – a skein of electrical wiring – across the collarbones of women.

In the historian’s premise, the appearance of the powerful skeins caused the shift in power from male to female control of the world.  Teenage girls first discover their power through manipulation of the electrical currents they can control for self-defense against men.  Initially, this unleashed power saves them from sexual advances, but eventually, its use for aggressiveness leads to a new religion, an armed force of women, and eventual take over of a world previously dominated by men.  Leaders include an ambitious  woman politician, the daughter of an underworld gangster, and an abused girl who becomes a charismatic pseudo-religious icon.

Alderman cleverly inserts recognizable scenarios of sex and power, reversing the attackers to women and the prey as men, as well as believable Internet forums corralling and controlling public opinion.  The action is sometimes graphic and the one male hero, a Nigerian reporter, manages to document the atrocities and send them into the newsfeed. The abuse of power, it seems, is not limited to men. Eventually, the world blows up in a nuclear disaster to reboot into a new future with better women in charge.

The final irony of a world with women in charge has a laughable moment when the reviewer is writing letters to the author commenting on the feasibility of the book for publication.  The reviewer, a woman, asks the author, a man, to change to a female pseudonym – the story may be better received if written by a woman.

Although I am not a fan of dystopian novels or science fiction, The Power, the winner of the Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction, has a timeliness for today’s headlines.  Compared to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the story has the same impact – a mix of terrifying fantasy and realism with electrifying satire.  This captivating book is scary, humorous, and unsettling – worth talking about.

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the movie “Arrival” based on the short story – “The Story of Your Life”

51zipo22i7l-_sx322_bo1204203200_  Not until I found the short story by Ted Chiang, “The Story of Your Life,” in his collection of short stories – Stories of Your Life and Others – did I understand the movie Arrival with Amy Adams.  Now I get its message on the importance of language and cooperation, buried in a science fiction drama reminiscent of Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  

Someone told me to watch carefully as the story unfolds, and it is good advice – but I may have to watch it again anyway.  The story of Dr. Louise Banks’ encounter with aliens, and her attempt to learn their language is mixed up with her own life and the trauma of her marriage and daughter’s death.  The differences between the written story and the movie had me admiring the screenwriter’s adaptation of the complex linguistic and mathematical theories Chiang uses in his short story; however, Chiang’s explanation of Fermat’s physics Principal of Least Time would have be helpful in understanding Dr. Banks’ flashes of memory. Unfortunately, it was not included in the movie – maybe to keep the viewer guessing until the explanation of events at the end.

In another Chiang short story – Babylon – in the same collection, Chiang theorizes about the notion of time.  As he describes the building of the tower of Babel to reach heaven,  the main character, Hillalum, discovers the same truth as Dr. Louise Banks – “Men imagined heaven and earth as being at the ends of a tablet, with sky and stars stretched between; yet the world was wrapped around in some fantastic way so that heaven and earth touched.”  Chiang envisions time in a circular continuum.

In his short story about the aliens landing on several sites across the Earth, including China, Russia, Pakistan, the United States and Europe, Chiang focuses on the importance of immersion in someone else’s culture to fully understand it, with the scientists and linguists working together to solve the puzzle of the aliens’ visit.  Their purpose for coming is difficult to understand without language.

In the movie, someone at one of the sites gets nervous and shoots first. The aliens are forgiving, and thankfully, the movie stays true to the communication theme and avoids becoming Star Wars.  Instead, nations come together to do something that seems more like science fiction today than ever – they work together.

arrival_movie_poster   If you have not yet seen the movie, you might want to read the short story first, and try not to get lost in some of the technical jargon.  The story of Dr. Louise Banks is at the core of both; just remember to look forward, not back.  And consider what you would do if you could see your whole life, from beginning to end – would you make the same decisions?

Although I’m not a big fan of science fiction in books, I am enjoying Chiang’s collection of thought-provoking short stories.  At the end of the book, Chiang offers “Story Notes,” explaining his inspiration for each -for “Story of Your Life,” Chiang notes his interest in telling a story “about a person’s response to the inevitable.”   Chiang quotes Kurt Vonnegut in his introduction to the twenty-fifth anniversary of Slaughterhouse-Five:

“Stephen Hawking found it tantalizing that we could not remember the future…. I know how my closest friends will end up because so many of them are retired or dead now…To Stephen Hawking and all others younger than myself I say, ‘Be patient.  Your future will come to you and lie down at your feet like a dot who knows and loves you no matter what you are.'”

The future will get here, no matter what we do.

Turn Off the News and Read

With the world gone mad, reading can be a relief from the news.  Last night I turned to an old favorite by Lois Lowry, The Giver, with its ambiguous ending of hope for a dystopian world.  Then, I read Michael Faber’s Under the Skin, a chilling tale yet curiously connected to civilization.  Published in 2000 and later made into a movie, the story is better if you have not heard of its premise, and I won’t spoil it here, but clearly not everyone is as they seem.

Reading books about how horrible the world has yet to become makes today seem not so bad – despite the dire ramblings of politicians and pundits.   Sometimes listening on Audible makes the misery more palatable and the hope for a changed future more possible.  Two I have on my iPhone to keep me properly alert  –

  • Station Eleven

615t54nnUzL._SL150_“…offers comfort and hope to those who believe, or want to believe, that doomsday can be survived, that in spite of everything people will remain good at heart, and that when they start building a new world they will want what was best about the old.” from the Sigrid Nunez review for the New York Times

  • California

61QRlMVfpeL._SL150_“…Perhaps the world as we know it will indeed end this way for many Americans: terrified of porcupines, longing for the sound of S.U.V.s, unable to ­distinguish between an artifact and a keepsake, helped to find temporary sanctuary by the last black man on earth. If it does, we won’t be able to say that “California” didn’t warn us.”  from Jeff Vandermeer’s review for the New York Times.

If the apocalypse is upon us, books have already outlined what we can expect.

The Martian by Andy Weir

9781101905005_p0_v2_s192x300Andy Weir may be the modern Jules Verne, going beyond “From the Earth to the Mooon” in his science fiction blockbuster The Martian, self-published in 2011.  When the book appeared in pocketbook size, with Matt Damon on the cover, I decided to finally read it. After the first chapter, I almost stopped;  the misery of scientific and mathematical speak was painful. The lack of editing had me wishing for a red pencil.  

But I turned the page, and the story suddenly was exciting.

Although I knew Mark Watney survived, I did not know how.  So many setbacks, so many innovative solutions, rivaling creative problem-solving sets from an Olympics of the Mind competition – how did Andy Weir do it? Despite the geeky forays into computer code and chemical balances, the story has humor and wonderfully cynical asides. Weir, the programmer and space enthusiast, clearly had fun detailing the complicated repairs for each new crisis, but after a while I skipped over them to return to the humanizing and gripping trial of this lone man on a distant planet.

Now I want to see the movie.

Related ReviewPacking for Mars

 

 

Books I Meant to Read

When the library has nothing for me, I browse the bookstores.  Of course, I can never get out of a bookstore empty handed.  The books have piled up, and now I’m not sure why I bought them – but someday I may read them.

Have you read any?  Do you recommend I cut my losses and donate them,

or buckle down and read them?  GetAttachment.aspx

  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
  • The Narrow Road in the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
  • The Appearance of Annie Van Sinderen by Katherine Howe
  • The Book of Eleanor by Pamela Kaufman
  • The Truth According to Us by Annie Barrows