R91. The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander

Year Published: 2018
Pages: 93

First Sentence: There is a secret buried beneath the mountain's grey skin.

I got this book (which I have to admit, is classified as a novella pretty much everywhere i've looked) as a free ebook from Tor.com. I've gotten a few of these now, but The Only Harmless Great Thing is the only one that I've really wanted to make time to read before I get to the end of The List. So here it is on my Random list.

Anyway, this book is hard to explain. It's a fantastical alternate history novel in which we follow a few different threads.

First, there are elephants. This thread concerns a sort of cultural history among elephants that I found really intriguing, and that you might as well, if you're interested in animal culture. Author Brooke Bolander does a great job with this part of the narrative, imagining a culture that is alien to our own, with different values and assumptions.

Next up is Kat, who exists in the "middle" thread of the narrative. She is a scientist, and she wants to make elephants glow as a warning against the presence of nuclear waste. In this thread we learn that elephants in this world are capable of using a trunk-based sign language and have been communicating with humans this way for many years. Kat has an interview with one of the elephant matriarchs to pitch her plan.

And finally, we have Regan and Topsy. Regan is a former Radium Girl who is now riddled with cancer and teaching an elephant to do the job she can no longer perform herself. Topsy is the elephant Regan is training, and we get glimpses of each of their perspectives.

Topsy, by the way, is also a real historical figure. The real Topsy was publicly executed at Coney Island in 1903. The reason for her execution was not, as is popularly believed, a whim of Thomas Edison's, but rather happened after she killed a spectator and earned a reputation as a "bad" elephant. This is a fascinating and bizarre story on its own without any speculative fiction trappings.

Beyond leading to my looking more into Topsy's story, this book unfortunately failed to make much of an impression on me. I do have to say that I think that's more an issue of my own personal preferences though. For the most part, I need more time with a world and its characters to become really invested, and that's why this will be the last of these short novels/novellas that I read for a while.

I will say that even though I failed to really connect with the material, this was a good book. There are good distinctions between all the different characters' narrative voices. And it definitely makes you think about human responsibility for environmental destruction. I just with that I could be more enthusiastic about the whole thing.

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