Review: The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander

Books We Love

The Only Harmless Great Thing was published in 2018 by Tor

The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander was a favourite in 2018. It is an alternate history intertwining the true story of the Radium Girls with the equally true story of the electrocution of Topsy the elephant. To these truths, the novellette adds elephant mythology and diplomatic negotiations between what remains of humanity and the emerging sentient elephant race. The rage that propels the former two narratives sometimes results in the overshadowing of the latter two stories; but it is crucial to remember that all of these stories are working together in this book — that rage has a place amongst the other reactions we have when we are witnesses to the destruction of the Earth and all that live in its ecosystems, but it is not the only thing we should feel.

Both rage and hope can be detrimental to developing the kinds of responses to the climate emergency that we need to restructure society (and the kinds of stories we tell ourselves). Certainly, rage can motivate, but it can also turn on itself; hope can push relentlessly toward unrealistic, unachievable goals when good-enough is right in front of us.* Bolander’s novelette is certainly a rage-packed pill that is, at times, tough to swallow; but it is easier if the book’s moments of beauty are not overlooked. The book begins not with the dying Radium Girls, nor even with Topsy the elephant’s plight; it begins with an address to the future.

The book opens with the new inheritors of the Earth: an elephant matriarch addressing her “best beloved mooncalf,” telling a story as if she is tucking a little one into bed. Similarly, the book ends with verse as if the elephant Mother has been telling us the whole story. But the Matriarch’s voice isn’t only relegated to the final word. After the horror of Regan and Topsy making a final decision to end their lives by nuclear explosion in a crowd of onlookers, the elephant Mother resumes the narrative, telling us how Regan and Topsy should be remembered. What we take away from their story, the gift that the elephant Mother gives us, is the idea that sometimes we endure difficult things, sad things, but together we are witnesses for each other. We are not alone in these hardest of times.

As an alternative history, The Only Harmless Great Thing is a fascinating book about memory and the function of memory to shape the future. Indeed, the elephants — animals known for their ability to remember — relate their memories through the telling of myths. These are myths recounting Topsy’s life and the effect that it had on the elephants who remember, and older myths of the “Fur Mothers” that teach the reader about the structure of the emerging elephant society and its long history on Earth.

Topsy the elephant refusing to cross the bridge to her execution site.

But this is also a book about the long “memory” of nuclear waste, and (more broadly) the long memory of the destruction that Western civilization has heaped on the Earth and the beings that live here with us. Bolander’s narrative contemplates a time when our destruction might not be so obvious, a time when we (and those that come after us) might need to be reminded of the dangers we have created. In this way, she reminds us of the importance of myth and story to the formation of cultures, suggesting a place for this story as we begin our necessary transformations.

*Let it be clear, that when we talk about hope sometimes pushing us toward unrealistic or utopian ideologies, we’re referring to Western lifestyle aspirations (what we might broadly call the North American Dream, what some might call colonization) and the effects of that continual striving. We are not referring to whatever feeling might be necessary in order to sustain an appropriate response to the climate crisis.

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