The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander
Publisher - Tor
Published - Out Now
Price - £2.22 ebook
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 injustices 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.
Sometimes history shows that the human race is incredibly cruel not just in epic warmongering ways but just simple moments of careless cruelty and greed. In 1903 Topsy was a performing elephant that had a reputation for ‘bad’ behaviour leading to her killing a spectator and eventually being sold to an equally uncaring zoo which decided; after further incidents, that a public electrocution of her would be both a fitting punishment and of course a tourist attraction. Similarly, in the early twentieth century the properties of radium were seen to have increasing value leading to factories where young women would have close contact painting items with this radio-active substance. The ‘radium girls’ were of course slowly poisoning themselves with devastating consequences. In this short but powerful story Brooke Bolander creates a story melding the two ideas into a beautiful angry tale of horror at what humans do as a species and the hope for a form of justice.
In Bolander’s alternate world it was discovered in the 19th century that elephants could be communicated to in sign language and trained to perform simple tasks. For the war effort radium factories produce army watches but as the female workforce succumbed to cancers brought on by radiation the bosses felt the better solution would be elephants; who it turns out are very dextrous painting with their trunks. She is being taught to paint by Regan the last woman in the factory who herself is ravaged with cancer of the jaw. Topsy is traumatised by being sold into the factory and Regan has just lost a close friend to the power of radium. Their injustices are about to collide unexpectedly.
This plotline then crosses with a future United States where elephants are an accepted sentient species but also a time when the US government is struggling with their own nuclear waste problem. Kat a young scientist working on the problem of how you warn people in millennia from now to stay away from wasteland. She realises elephants may be their best hope but that the elephants may finally expect something in return…
The beauty of this story is that it takes a non-linear approach to the plot. We first meet Kat and then bounce around in time to Topsy’s world and alongside both we also visit the mythology of this thoughtful elephant civilisation that we have not actually recognised was there for thousands of years. We know Topsy will somehow lead towards the uneasy truce we currently have in Kat’s world we just don’t know what happened until the events of this alternate world pan out. But there is a sense that as in the culture of elephants their history or as its referred to their ‘Stories’ have always existed forwards and backwards in time then the events of Topsy’s life and death also serve a larger purpose to aid her people.
It’s beautifully written Bolander mixes the vernacular of the early 20th century with a poetical myth about the first elephant to create Story; finally contrasting both with the ways of the current age where everything is hidden within management speak and corporate negotiations. Each section has its own unique style but the way they complement each other is really well done. This I think really underlines that elephant culture is just as rich and intelligent as the myths of our own history and to see how we treat Topsy as dumb labour to be poisoned for watch faces is powerful and you will feel shame at how we as a species think we naturally are in charge. In fact, within each time-zone we see evidence that humanity puts value on everything and is happy to lie and harm not just to the elephants but anyone perceived to be standing in their way. Its sobering though that it becomes clear the elephants are aware of this too…
There is a theme of sacrifice that flows through the story. Regan could decide to take her company compensation cheque and run off to die quietly; Topsy could decide to just give in and we see both Kat and the first elephant (the amazingly named Furmother!) have their own battles to resist convention be it office politics or an ever-static ice age. For a book under a hundred pages how these worlds come alive so vividly even in relative short scenes is a real triumph of writing and I think makes this a haunting tale I can see linger in my mind for a long time to come.
Provided you are happy with a short tale I think any reader who values being made to work how the pieces of the story will slot together will be richly rewarded with a reminder of both how humanity can be both cruel, stupid and on occasion willing to help those in need. I will definitely be looking out for more from Brooke Bolander in the future.