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.

Review: The Shape of Water

Underneath, there is a shallow plot that could have been a children’s adventure story – and that is a good thing. What if…Beauty and the Beast and beauty was the creature from the black lagoon? What if…ET but filmed so it looked like The City of Lost Children complete with accordion music? A confident film is aware of its connections and the tropes it makes use of without apologising for them or belabouring them. What if…a fairytale but weird and violent and sexual and sexy as fairytales often are.

Del Toro makes this look easy and natural and also obvious – but in a good sense, as if he was filming a story we all knew and expected. A cosy, oft told tale of a cleaner at a secret US facility during the lead up to the Cuban missile crisis and her love (both romantic and physical) with a scary fish monster. If it has a lack as a story it arises out of the familiarity that Del Toro creates which keeps surprises to a minimum.

It is clumsiest in its handling of disability (discussed better than I can here ) notably in a sequence in which the central character Elisa, who is mute, sings in a fantasy sequence. That’s not say Sally Hawkins performance isn’t incredible but it is a mistep. The resolution of the film…well it rightly avoided a different cliche (the disabled person being ‘healed’ of their disability) by attempting to subvert what that might mean. Did it do so succesfully?

Sex and sexual desire runs through the film both as perfunctory act and as desire and as a threat and as comedy. Elisa and her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) discussing sexual anatomy as they push their cleaning carts is one of many genuinely funny parts in the film. At other times sex is shown as ugly and selfish (at least for the bad guy Strickland – played by Michael Shannon), lonely but satisfying (Elisa’s daily timed mastrubation) and unobtainable (her neighbour Giles, an ageing gay man, and his infatuation with the server in a franchised pie shop). That true love and great sex are found in unlikely places is a classic Beauty and the Beast trope but typically the sex part is glossed over – not here, there is no ambiguity that Elisa and her Beauty share more than an emotional connection (hence the anatomy discussion).

Doug Jones (currently Saru in Star Trek Discovery) is incredible as the amphibian man at the centre of the story. Plausibly human-like and yet uncomprisingly a fish monster or an Amazonian river god or a sensitive lover.

Great acting, visually beautiful. Hawkins and Spencer are a great double act but Hawkins and Richard Jenkins (playing Elisa’s neighbour Giles) also have some great moments. Shannon’s villain is more one-dimensional but even there Del Toro adds some great touches – such as him studiously reading ‘The Power of Positive Thinking’ like he is the proto-type of the modern day alt-right arsehole. Michael Stuhlberg’s Bob/Dimitri – a conflicted scientist slash soviet spy, rounds out the core cast with his own sub plot that combines its own sharp tensions between comedy and fear.

There’s a light touch here and gelatine desert sweetness that Del Toro both lampshades and cuts through with violence, horror and tension but which is also tempered with genuine human connections via friendship and love.



Was Antonelli Set Up?

This piece isn’t an attempt to evoke sympathy for Lou Antonelli or suggest he isn’t responsible for his own actions but I do genuinely wonder if he was set up by others.

I’m still piecing together recent events. There are two elements here:

  • Dave Freer’s nutty theory about me.
  • Lou Antonelli’s doxxing attempt*.

Looks like I get to star in my own conspiracy theory folks…

Continue reading “Was Antonelli Set Up?”

The Fieldsy Flap Continues

Lou Antonelli has been posting more things about his odd claims about me on his blog. He has got into a sort of exchange with Jim Hines over the issue.

Here’s the first:[archive]

Jim then followed up that with some other questions, specifically about saw of the really appalling attacks Dave Freer made at Mad Genius Club aimed at the Meadows family*. The reaction from Lou was…remarkable:[archive]

I won’t quote it because it reads like a parody of a guilty person casting themselves as the epitome of the oppressed victim.

It has been several very surreal days that this thing has been going on, with some really odd and alarming behavior even by the standards we’ve seen from the Sad Puppies in the past.

For those keeping track of where I’m supposed to be, in the first of those post a user called ‘Kama’ left a comment about how I had left a comment on their blog a couple of years ago. Kama is a Mad Genius Regular and not a fan of mine, so the comment is particularly interesting because they give an IP address for the comment I left that resolves to…Sydney. Note that this would have been when Dave Freer claims I was in…Aberdeen. Phew! Looks like the whole Scottish-Alien Abduction Elapsed Time Scenario can be but on hold.

*[In earlier posts I made an effort not to name the people being dragged into Lou’s attack on me but Foz Meadows has addressed the claims publically now]

Dave Freer Is Having Imaginary Conversations With Me Now

Presented almost without comment:

  • “This was the assurance that conservatives — being more conventional — were less creative, so of course, all the arts had more liberals.” Yes, Fieldsy-Camestros tried this one on me. My answer: well, that about wraps it up for JRR Tolkein… (or CS Lewis, or Zenna Henderson or Madeleine l’Engle, or Jack Vance, Gene Wolfe, Tim Powers…) Oddly, possibly because of persecution winnowing those authors stories seem to retain popularity.


I guess it must have been when I had that fugue state and lived in Aberdeen and then had my memory erased. 🙂


Star Trek Discovery Season 2 Scripts Scoop! A Felapton Towers exclusive!

Where next for Star Trek Discovery? The hit and miss Trek prequel has been greenlit for a second season but with major characters either dead or traitors of one kind or another, it is hard to see where the show can go in season 2.

As people now know, I am secretly the husband of many, many famous people including Vladimir Putin, Chuck Tingle and some top Hollywood scriptwriters. Using my manifold connections I have secured the Season 2 Episode 1 script! Yes, golly gosh and wow!

Major news! A beloved character from a previous Trek spin-off will be a regular character. You’ll never guess who!

Obviously, spoiler aplenty below the fold.

Continue reading “Star Trek Discovery Season 2 Scripts Scoop! A Felapton Towers exclusive!”

Goodbye Ursula

I had listened to A Wizard of Earthsea long before I had read it. We had all three books of Earthsea in the house but they were too hard for me to read. The Tombs of Atuan was the one I wanted desperately to read and I would take it from the bookshelf and trace the labyrinth. I made myself read A Wizard of Earthsea – I knew the story already and the edition we had also had some pictures. I struggled to read Tombs and gave up…and then tried again when I was older. In my mind the interval was years but practically it must have been months. It was the hardest thing I had ever read, it was a struggle, I was confused why Ged didn’t show up immediately and when he did he was lost, hurt, confused but still…thinking. It was the first time I fought a book into submission and at the end I felt I owned the story in away that meant it couldn’t be as special to anybody else but me.

The Farthest Shore took a longer run up but by then the dam had broken. I knew there wasn’t any book I couldn’t read – oh and also that you didn’t need to fight them.

Of course I read other stuff. Tolkien kept me busy when I was 11. I was 16 I think when I saw in a bookshop a very odd looking book. It was a US paperback, slightly the wrong size and even weirder it was TWO books: Rocannon’s World and Planet of Exile by…Ursula Le Guin. I didn’t know she had written anything else but it was like I’d found a hidden secret – that the author of the books I had lived as a child had second life writing SF novels.

Lefty older teenage me, obsessed still with Doctor Who, science and socialism burnt through the other Hainish books I could find and hit The Dispossessed when I was at the most vulnerable to it.

Le Guin was not always my favourite author, but somehow she charted my reading to adulthood. Never forced, she understood silence better than any writer I have ever read.

I’m so, so sad that she has gone but I know so many people now who also “owned” her stories in a way that was uniquely special to them. So few heroes can live up to that challenge of being heroes but Le Guin has by being something better than a hero.