This book is hard to explain. I've done a botched job babbling about it excitedly to friends and family these last couple days, so instead here I'll just give you the official speil:
The Only Harmless Great Thing is a heart-wrenching alternative history by Brooke Bolander that imagines an intersection between the Radium Girls and noble, sentient elephants.
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.
I know, that might not paint the most precise picture. But for me it, (and the fact that it just won a Nebula), was enough to take the dive.
Long story short (heh), I love it.
Go read it! This book is beautiful and worth the time you have to give it. Once you're done, if you want to hear some of my thoughts come back!
Like the blurb says, The Only Harmless Great Thing draws from fact. The two events at it's core, the Radium Girls and the electrocution of an elephant in Coney island, really happened. What's unique is that the novellete doesn't start with this history and then diverge, but instead starts in the unreal, stays there, and weaves the history throughout, as the spine of the work.
This creates this incredible feeling of alien reality, where the fantastic elements reinforce the tragedy of the history, and the history gives weight and structure to the fantastic.
There is a third fact, not mentioned in the blurb, that's central to the book. Humanity is faced with the problem of communicating the location and dangers of nuclear waste for it's entire lifetime, tens of thousands of years. This is a real, fascinating, problem. It, like the other historical realities, neatly encapsulates the character of humanity, the lack of forethought and regard for the future, that's central to the novellete.
Try not to judge theme; their mothers were short-lived, forgetful things, clans led by bulls with short memories and shorter tempers. They had no history no shared Memory.
In some ways, this story really does rest upon the notion that "an elephant never forgets"
The solution proposed in the novel doesn't entirely stand up to scrutiny, but that's besides the point. It neatly ties in the other two historical facts, and sets the stage for the poignant ending/beginning of the novel.
Much more than humanity, the elephants are the moral and sympathetic center of the story and carry the weight of the start and finish. The novel bounces between timelines and perspectives of human and elephant characters, which reaally drives up the contrast between the two perspectives.
Elephants and humans communicate through a form of sign language, which carries over impeccably when we read the elephants thoughts. They're vivid and imaginative, and rich with sensory notions of things (humans are "squeakers"). In the really hard task of conveying an alien species thoughts in a way that's both comprehensible and appropriate, Bolander unequivocally succeeds. On the other side of things, in conveying human thoughts, I think the novellete falls a little short.
The language is rich and creative and Bolander pulls some really lovely turns of phrase, but they sometimes pull you out of the book. My interpretation is that they're there to provide a counterpoint to the depth and imagery of the elephant's prose, and they're certainly as inventive, but perhaps because we're much more familiar with "human" thoughts, they feel a little stilted or unnatural.
Generally though the relationship and juxtaposition between humans and elephants is fantastic. The majesty of the Great Mothers in contrast with the uncertainty and "smallness" of the human characters, are united in the tragedy of the events that occur, both real and imagined. The central character relationship is also develops really well, even under the relatively short space the book gives it.
The first thing that I took away from this, regardless of any themes or ideas, was just that it was beautiful, and tragic. The writing is wonderful, and the interwoven history and fantasy produces these amazing images, of glowing elephants, and relationships growing through sign language, of humanity's time neuroses through the eyes of elephants. And all this is steeped in the tragedy of historical events, of the things we've actually done, and short-sightedness we've exhibited, to the things we're slowly marching towards.
Writing reviews of media I consume is something I want to experiment with. I think that even if it serves no other purposes it'll be a really powerful record for me to look back on. But it could also serves as a way for me to talk to other people about the things that I care about and think and that's super cool too. We'll see! If you have any thoughts on the book (or the review) please lemme know. I'd love to talk about it!