CONTENT WARNING: This review discusses industrial and animal abuse, as well as detailed descriptions of cancer symptoms. It also discusses the book’s ending, if spoilers are a big deal for you.
Science fiction these days seems to be intractably stuck in both the past and the future. Which is to say, the present. Brooke Bolander’s new novella, The Only Harmless Great Thing, embodies this generic mandate. Set in both the past and the near future, it nonetheless speaks to our chaotic cultural moment. While the execution occasionally falls short, the book is most fearsome, and most timely, in its depiction of solidarity among the oppressed, even as it is unflinching about the reality of that oppression.
The novella reworks the historical stories of both Topsy the elephant and the Radium Girls, respectively an elephant publicly executed on Coney Island and a group of women systemically poisoned in an effort to save money. This does involve fudging the dates slightly — Topsy was electrocuted in 1903, while the Orange New Jersey factory opened in 1917, yet the novella depicts these events as happening simultaneously. This allows Bolander to create a general commentary on the early twentieth century, and her version of events, in which Topsy’s electrocution causes a nuclear explosion off the coast of New York, is open about the cruelty and exploitation on which modernity was founded.
The narrative shifts between multiple protagonists, both before after the Topsy disaster, as well as media cuttings, commemorative songs, and a Kipling-inspired fable about an ancient mother elephant. This might sound like information overload, and the cacophony of voices is very much part of the novella’s effect, but Bolander manages her transitions impeccably. Every narrative jump feels natural, and each one either helps the story progress, or injects fresh perspective on what has come before. Pacing overall is absolutely flawless; the book is precisely the length is needs to be, building ruthlessly to a telegraphed ending that still manages to shock.
The book in general is long on horror, as befits its heavy subject matter. The novella opens with a description of a mountain contaminated by nuclear waste, long after humanity’s extinction, and the irradiated elephants who live there.
“At night, when the moon shuffles off behind the mountain and the land darkens like wetted skin, they glow. There is a story behind this. No matter how far you march, O best beloved mooncalf, the past will always drag around your ankle, a snapped shackle time cannot pry loose.”
The problem of nuclear waste lasting longer than human civilisation is a real and terrifying thing, but this abstracted horror soon gives way to more visceral nastiness, as we meet the character of Regan, an elephant handler poisoned by radium paint. Regan spends most of the novella slowly dying, and Bolander describes this in agonising detail:
“The ache in her jaw has gone from a dull complaint to endless fire blossoming from the hinge behind her back teeth, riding the rails all the way to the region of her chin. It never stops or sleeps or cries uncle. Even now, trying to teach this cussed animal how to eat the poison that hammered together her own rickety stairway to Heaven, it’s throbbing and burning like Satan’s got a party cooked up inside and everybody’s wearing red-hot hobnails on the soles of their dancing shoes. She reminds herself to focus. This particular elephant has a reputation for being mean as hell; a lack of attention might leave her splattered across the wall and conveyor belt. Not yet, ol’ Mr. Death. Not just yet.”
These metaphors may feel overwrought at first, but they effectively convey Regan’s overwhelming pain, the sentences carefully modulated so that they never feel monotonous. The subtle, jerking moves this paragraph makes towards describing Regan’s interactions with Topsy help convey the conscious effort Regan is making to concentrate on her work. Her pain may be enormous, but she literally cannot afford to dwell on it.
These lengthy, painful descriptions are a clear, and even affecting, part of the book’s point, but there are moments which risk tipping over into simply aestheticising that pain. Worse, though, is the occasionally crass depiction of Regan’s fellow workers. There’s a rather clumsy attempt to sympathetically characterise her abusive foreman, and at one point Regan receives a letter from fellow Radium Girl Jodie that feels a little patronising in its efforts to demonstrate how these women have been denied education.
Just want you to no, aint no hard feeling about the way things paned out. You all did best you cood lookin out for me like blood kin when you no I never had no body since Mama past away. Even yor own mama used to give me a seat at the tabell when holy fokes sooner feed scraps to a stray tomcat than a big uglee plain mannerd girl like me.”
Jodie clearly *can* write — she is not illiterate — so to have her misspell every other word like this seems like overkill, and the sentences are a bit too lucid to suggest the misspellings are a result of mental deterioration. It’s a small slip, but it is a shame, especially given the novella’s overall success in depicting the humanity of these workers who have effectively been poisoned for profit.
It’s also odd given the savviness of the book’s politics overall. Bolander is heartbreaking in her portrayal of reckless industrial and political elites. Particularly striking are Regan’s long, awkward confrontation with her boss in Part Two, and an early scene where political negotiator Kat realises she is effectively asking a group of elephants to do something for nothing, because it simply had not occurred to her to offer them anything.
“The translator stares at Kat for a little longer than is necessary. She glances back over her shoulder at the matriarch, then back at Kat.
“I just want to make sure I’m hearing this correctly before I translate,” she says, in a lower register. “Did you seriously just show up to what is basically a diplomatic meeting with no bargaining chips whatsoever?””
Moments like these are subtle, yet savage in their portrayal of a system which would not only allow, but encourage this disregard for marginalised groups.
But it’s the ending which takes The Only Harmless Great Thing from savvy and well-crafted story to essential-feeling political statement. Topsy is being marched to her public execution, with both the reader and the main characters knowing it will result in nuclear disaster. At first, she refuses to move. “She smells her ending, and her feet plant themselves, bending-parts senselessly locking.” But then Regan emerges:
“Another human pushes out of the mass — the dead girl, still moving, still somehow on her feet when every part of her stinks of corruption. […] She turns, asking in the language of twisted trunk-paws: Are you well? Can you walk? It’s just a little further. We’ll go together.
And even this much We is enough to drive the fear back into the high grass. Her mind stills. Her legs unstiffen. Together they cross the overwater, men flytrailing behind. Together they go to sing the song of their undoing, the joining, teaching, come-together song.”
This final act of compassion, this insistence on solidarity in the face of fatal oppression, is fundamental to the book’s success. The Only Harmless Great Thing is bold, cutting, and exactly what science fiction needs to be right now.
The Only Harmless Great Thing is available to preorder from Tor.com, in ebook and paperback editions.