Naomi Alderman’s The Power has become the first science fiction novel to scoop the Baileys prize for women’s fiction. The thriller, set in a dystopian future where women and girls can kill men with a single touch, was the favourite on a shortlist that included former winner Linda Grant and Man Booker-shortlisted Madeleine Thien.
The chair of judges, film and TV producer Tessa Ross, said that the book was a clear winner of the £30,000 prize, despite at times passionate debate among the judges. “This prize celebrates great writing and great ideas and The Power had that, but it also had urgency and resonance,” she said. The judges, she added, had been impressed by Alderman’s handling of the big issues that affect all humanity, from greed to power, and predicted the novel would be “a classic of the future”.
The novel has been described as feminist science fiction, and asks the question what is power: who has it, how do you get it, and what does it do when you have it? And, when you have power, how long before power corrupts you? It follows four main characters: Roxy, the daughter of a London crime lord; Tunde, a journalism student in Lagos; Allie, from the southern states of the US and Margo, a low-level politician. They all feature in a combination of page-turning thriller and thought experiment that attacks some of the biggest issues of our times, including religion, gender politics and censorship.
Ross described the book as “bold, accessible and beautifully written”. Despite the present-day political echoes within The Power, she said its political content was not discussed by the panel, which also included broadcaster Katie Derham, novelist Aminatta Forna, comedian Sara Pascoe and the co-founder of The Pool website, Sam Baker. “But we did discuss the relevance of the book to the world today,” she added. “It was a conversation about what great art does and why it matters now.”
It is not the first time Alderman has stood on the winning podium at the women’s prize for fiction: 10 years ago, the games writer and former gaming columnist for the Guardian, won the 2006 Orange award for new writers with her debut, Disobedience. The Power looks set to be a popular win. On publication, it was greeted with rave reviews, including being hailed as an “instant classic of speculative fiction” in the Guardian and “insightful, thrilling, funny” by the Daily Telegraph.
The novel was nearly ditched by the 42-year-old writer. In an interview with the Guardian, she said that she had been 200,000 words into another book when she decided it was not working and abandoned it to start The Power.
That the book – Alderman’s fourth – has been likened to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is no coincidence. Atwood “adopted” the north London authorin a mentoring scheme for young writers, and The Power is dedicated to her and her husband Graeme Gibson, “who have shown me wonders”. Like The Handmaid’s Tale, the acclaimed adaptation of which is currently being screened on Channel 4, The Power seems destined, also, to make it to the small screen in the not too distant future. Atwood had some input into Alderman’s winning novel: she suggested the idea for the convent, where the newly empowered young women go for sanctuary as they are hunted down by a vengeful male establishment.
Alderman’s win should attract useful attention for the prize, which has been looking for new sponsors after drinks brand Baileys announced it was pulling out. The win will also put paid to recurrent accusations that writing by women is mired in the “domestic”.
Pointing to the variety of the shortlist – which ranged from Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle, set in 1950s England, to the 1980s Nigerian setting of Ayòbámi Adébáyò’s debut Stay With Me – Ross said: “There is no one theme that anyone writes about on this list. That is what is wonderful about it. It is thrilling to see [that] women’s writing is no ‘one thing’.”
Asked if the fact that women’s writing broke past literary stereotypes and took them to the top of prize shortlists across all genres meant that there was no longer a need for a prize aimed solely at one gender, she said: “That question has to be asked, but really? Enough. It is a brilliant thing to be able to celebrate women’s writing. These women are writing necessary and great books.”