“In the early years of the 20th century, a group of female factory workers in Newark, New Jersey slowly died of radiation poisoning. Around the same time, an Indian elephant was deliberately put to death by electricity in Coney Island.
These are the facts.
Now these two tragedies are intertwined in a dark alternate history of rage, radioactivity, and injustice crying out to be righted. Prepare yourself for a wrenching journey that crosses eras, chronicling histories of cruelty both grand and petty in search of meaning and justice.” (via Goodreads)
Holy Hera, was that a fantastic novella! I went into The Only Harmless Great Thing knowing only that it was inspired by ray cats and the atomic priesthood, Radium Girls, and the electrocution of Topsy the elephant. It’s all of those things, and so much more. The story weaves in three stories: one set in a factory in Orange, NJ, where a dying radium girl forges a bond with Topsy; an alternate present where a human scientist must try to convince an elephant diplomat to alter their genetics to keep future humans from doing something stupid; and a story in the future being told by one elephant to another. As they weave together, Bolander reveals herself as a master storyteller.
Only Harmless Great Thing is an angry story, a tale of the terrible things we do to each other. Regan, Topsy, Kat are angry women trapped in a world where their rage, their voices, their wants and hopes and dreams are discarded by careless, thoughtless men. Regan can do nothing with her fury but seek vengeance, and Kat nothing but remember and honor the past. Topsy gets to do both, carry the ancient stories of her foremothers and mete out explosive revenge. What the elephants understand and the human women learn is that power, real power, doesn’t come from control but from truth.
At only 92 pages, this should be a quick and easy read, but I found myself slowing down, re-reading, and luxuriating in Bolander’s text. It’s as beautiful as it is fierce. Even though it’s only April, it’s safe to say The Only Harmless Great Thing will remain one of the best pieces of SFF of 2018. I can’t wait to read it again and again and again.
They gored the earth with gaping holes, shook her bones until crystals like pieces of starless sky fell out. Trapped inside were glowing flies. Trampling them made a smeary shine, but they carried sickness within their blood and guts. Pity the poor humans! Their noses were stumpy, ridiculous things and they couldn’t smell the Wrongness, even as they rubbed it across their teeth and faces. All they could see was how bright it looked, like sunlight through new leaves. For want of a trunk, much sorrow would come to them – and onto us, though we knew it not in those days.
Read an excerpt over at Tor.com.
Do the world a favor and buy this book from your local indie bookstore or get it from your public library.