Review: The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander

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.

“Regan,

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.

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Review: Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

Let’s make one thing clear: Every Heart a Doorway has an absolutely fabulous premise. Its central idea – a boarding school/rehab clinic for children who have returned from Narnia-style excursions to other worlds – is one of the best concepts in recent memory. It’s also perfect for the ‘Young Adult’ demographic the novella is pitched at. Tales of adolescent angst are much improved by unicorns, mad scientists and the occasional vampire, and McGuire makes her characters feel like real teenagers as well as exiles from otherworldly dimensions. But while the setting and characters are intriguing and well-observed, the novella’s mechanics leave a bit to be desired. Pacing and structural problems abound, and while the book’s light touch and short length make it inoffensive, it’s hard not to feel a sense of wasted potential. Every Heart a Doorway is ultimately a better premise than it is a book.

The novella opens with the arrival of main character Nancy, fresh from an extended jaunt in the Halls of the Dead. We follow her as she is introduced to the school and her fellow pupils, all outcasts from various magical realms, alienated from the real world. The early chapters outline the characters’ sense of not belonging in touching and subtle ways, like the moment where Nancy realises her parents have packed bright clothes for her instead of the dark ones she is used to: “How could she wear any of these things? Those were daylight colours, meant for people who moved in the sun, who were hot, and fast, and unwelcome in the Halls of the Dead”. The book shines in these quiet moments of dejection, as well as those where the differing nature of each kid’s fantasy world affects their interactions. Some have returned from Carrollesque nonsense worlds, others from lands more akin to the Hammer Horror films, and those differences lead to tensions between pupils. The decision to effectively organise high school cliques along genre lines is inspired.

Nancy herself is an interesting heroine, more inclined to observe than actively interfere, which makes her the perfect point of view character to establish a fairly complex setting. This is very much a novella in the post-Gaiman tradition of tell-don’t-show metafictional commentary. This can be terribly effective, such as when Nancy’s teacher explains why more girls go missing than boys: “We notice the silence of men. We depend upon the silence of women”. But too often it feels like McGuire is simply delivering characterisation via overlong info-dumps, like the moment Nancy reflects on her asexuality: “She didn’t mind flirting. Flirting was safe, flirting was fun; flirting was a way of interacting with her peers without anyone realising that there was anything strange about her. She could have flirted forever. It was just the things that came after flirting that she had no interest in”. McGuire too often dwells on superfluous details, using two dozen words where one would do.

That sense of sloppiness is matched elsewhere in the book. After a leisurely-paced opening the second half is preoccupied by a murder mystery, but the pace remains too slow to be effective, with characters simply dawdling around having un-tense conversations while the body count steadily grows. The culprit is obvious from the get-go, and at one point the book’s cleverest character is required to act like an idiot so as not to solve things too early. Even worse, after all that faffing about the plot climaxes in the most abrupt and hackneyed way possible, with a confrontation in the school attic and an honest-to-God damsel in distress. It gets at a larger problem with the book; having established an ingenious premise allowing for all sorts of interesting commentary, McGuire instead opts to put her characters through the most bog-standard plot imaginable.

Every Heart a Doorway is not a bad book. Its short length minimises its pacing problems, and the characters are likeable and well-rounded enough to keep you interested. But given the nature of its premise, it’s a surprisingly unambitious one. The muddled and unsatisfying nature of the central mystery is ultimately less frustrating than the decision to have a central mystery at all. It displays a disappointing lack of faith in what should have been a world-beating concept. McGuire begins by breaking every rule in the book, but she ends by conforming to every single one.

Every Heart a Doorway is published by tor.com and is available to buy in hardback and ebook format, RRP £12/£7.59.