Review: The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander

I made a bad personal choice on reflection – I should have saved this novella for a different week and found a comfort read. Instead, I read this in a surreal rollercoaster week and while this isn’t a specifically Le Guin like the book there are enough elements (one in particular with a human negotiating with other sentient beings) that kept me thinking of that loss. So no – not a comfort read. This is an angry book on tragic events and it made me cry but, as I said, probably a week I should have gone for comfort reads.

In a future (not ours but one so close to ours that it would be indistinguishable aside from some very specific semiotics) a woman is negotiating. A solution has been found to a long-term problem – how to mark the burial of dangerous radioactive waste with a long half-life in a way that will be a warning for future generations. A solution has been found but that solution requires the cooperation and consent of a tribe of elephants.

Using sign language an offer has been made to the elephants. They will receive an area of land in perpetuity but in exchange, they will be given a genetic modification that will result in them glowing in the dark. The long memories of elephants (here particularly long in the sense of a deep and extensive oral history) and a specific association among humans with regard to elephants and radioactivity.

The future strand of the story assumes an alternate cultural history for us – one with Disney cartoons we haven’t seen and associations we don’t make. The other strands of the story look at those in turn. One looks at the imagined narrative history of elephant culture and a deep mythology. The other strands weave together two parts of our own history.

The Radium Girls were women who worked in factories in the early twentieth-century painting watch dials with radium paint so that it would glow in the dark. Assured that the substance was harmless, they were encouraged for efficiency purposes to lick their paint brushes into a fine point, leading to even higher exposure to radiation. The resulting diseases and deaths were appalling.

A different tragedy, here time-shifted somewhat, is the tale of Topsy the elephant. Topsy was a circus elephant who killed a spectator in 1902 and was regarded as dangerous and violent. As a consequence and for more cynical commercial reasons, Topsy was executed by poison and electrocution in 1903 at Coney Island.

The core strands of those stories imagine an alternate history in which there is a shared history between these two events. Together the themes of institutional abuse, neglect and misuse of people for profit are brought together.

The prose is complex and shifts between lyrical and fierce. The inner thoughts of the elephants as an intelligent species with a language and a cultural history are convincingly and empathetically portrayed.

The events have an inevitability to them, drawn as they are from real historical events and heavily foreshadowed but there is sufficient suspense that there is a constant tension amid the tragedy.

Powerful and intense. Not an easy read and I hope it doesn’t sound negative to say that I’m glad it was short. The writing demands attention and it is a book probably best read when you are wide awake and in one sitting – and probably when you aren’t feeling emotionally vulnerable.

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8 thoughts on “Review: The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander

  1. I have this one on my list, since I have enjoyed Brooke Bolander’s short fiction a whole lot. But merely given the subject matter, it’s probably not something to read at emotionally tiring times.

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  2. I thought it was really good but possibly did not stick the ending. It kinda quit (though you knew what was going to happen in the next 5-10 minutes) and there was so much going on throughout that the end was… blah.

    Still very much worth reading, but not when you’re depressed or tired.

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    1. Tough to end right. If it was a movie you just do a sharp cut to black. There’s a visual aspect to the story but not much visual description (e.g. the elephant signing, the idea of a Disney cartoon about Topsy – presumably Dumbo like, glowing elephants etc) but Topsy’s end isn’t showable (ironically as the actual Topsy execution was infamously filmed)

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      1. That film, which I saw years ago, is also not something you should watch, unless you are emotionally fortified. There’s also a photo of another poor circus elephant that was hanged from a crane around the same time, also for the crime of killing her abuser.

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    2. Only just got round to this. I have to echo Lurkertype re the ending. I was reading it on kindle and when the page turn landed me on the acknowledgements I was genuinely croggled. Fair enough, it forms *a* valid ending to the story of Topsy and Regan, but the future strand feels very unfinished indeed, not to mention the elephant ecology with the shared memory, and more than that I don’t feel like the overall *theme* about exploitation is complete – there’s something needed to tie it all together.
      It’s certainly very powerful and well-told, just…frustrating.

      (Also, a mark of good alt-history is when you google while reading and go “wow, that’s really true then”. I assumed the elephant execution was made up!)

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