The Only Harmless Great Thing,
(cover design by Will Staehle)
Tor have really been knocking it out the park with some terrific novellas these last few years, some have been writers I know, others from authors new to me and more than a few of those have been a delightful surprise to me, going in with no expectations, the short form of the novella offering an ideal way to experience different writers without committing to a much longer read (which when you have a lot of books jumping up and down on your shelves waiting impatiently to be read that’s a bonus). The Only Harmless Great thing falls into that “new to me” category, the first time I’ve read the multiple award-nominated Brooke Bolander, and on the strength of this I’m hoping to read more in the future.
This book takes some of the oft-intriguing alt-history genre and some of the fantasy genre and melds them together into something rather wonderful and unusual. Set in the early 20th century it brings together two seemingly disparate elements, the unfortunate “Radium Girls” and the equally unfortunate Tosy the elephant. The Radium Girls were mostly poor, working class women who worked, as you might infer, with the then-new “miracle” substance of Radium. This is well before science learned just how dangerous radioactive substances were, and how devastating they are on animal life (including humans). The women would work on delicate, detailed fine work such as painting radium onto watch dials to make the figures luminous (especially useful to police and armed forces for night work), and they would, like most of us when painting, wet the end of their brushes to get a fine point for detail, usually with a quick lick of the tongue and lips, ingesting radium every time they did so. Of course they had been told it was harmless, in fact it was even touted as a sort of elixir for vitality and fun (some of the girls painted it onto their lips to amuse their dates on nights out, others drank “Radium Water” for health.
Regan is one such Radium Girl, and long exposure to the new wonder material has been slowly destroying her body, like her now deceased friend, her body slowly rotting away, the cells damaged beyond repair, a long, slow, lingering, painful demise. And as the only breadwinner in her family she just has to keep working for as long as her body lasts, the uncaring company meantime constantly telling her that her compensation is due any day. While still maintaining that their product is not the source of so many of their women workers developing a terrible illness and dying slowly they do start cutting down on humans and using trained elephants to replace them, including Topsy, bought from a travelling show after snapping and stomping some vicious keepers who maltreated her, Regan communicating with Topsy through sign language (Topsy, as you may know, was a maltreated elephant who was, to his shame, used by Edison for a PR stunt where he used electricity to execute the poor creature).
This is a world where the elephants are intelligent beings, quite possibly equal to the humans, but Brooke does a remarkable job in showing them in a way that illustrates that they are a different species, they think differently, have different ways. It’s like two alien civilisations communicating, except both are terrestrial. The elephants have a beautifully described shared culture, female-centric, the Mothers passing down the stories that define them, stories that have been passed through generations for millennia, right back to the “Fur Mother”, the great mammoth of the last Ice Age. Brooke sculpts this matriarchal, ancient culture and weaves it into the problems of humans and their “ingenious” inventions (especially the ones that often do more harm than good) and the lives of Regan and the other girls, and does so with a deft hand, re-imagining and personalising some real history and weaving the fantastical element through it, and this world-building is all the more remarkable given this is all accomplished in less than a hundred pages, comparing and contrasting the lives of those who rarely get to voice in history. A wonderfully unusual and compelling, compassionate read.