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The Only Harmless Great Thing

4.11  ·  Rating details ·  1,052 Ratings  ·  290 Reviews
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 b
Paperback, 93 pages
Published January 23rd 2018 by Publishing
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Jan 06, 2018 rated it it was amazing
in just under a hundred pages, brooke bolander figured out a way to rewrite american history so it’s even worse, develop two-and-change distinct storylines, flesh out the thoughts, traditions, mythologies, language, and other components of a cultural heritage belonging to a familiar nonhuman species, and drag the reader through puddles of sorrow and sick-feelings before shaking ‘em off into hope, triumph, and a raised fist of “fuck all y’all.”

plus, she manages all of that in this strikingly fanc
Elise (TheBookishActress)
“No matter what you did, forty or fifty or a hundred years passed and everything became a narrative to be toyed with, masters of media alchemy splitting the truth's nucleus into a ricocheting cascade reaction of diverging alternate realities.”

This novella is a story about stealing back your narrative from those who wish to change it, to sanitize history and make their own actions sound good. It is a discussion of the animal capacity to feel and the morality of making animals props in our war
Jun 16, 2017 rated it it was amazing

Caveats first: I'm another author; I know Brooke Bolander as a friend. The draft I read? One of the earlier versions of the finished product, I'm sure.

But stranger, if you're here, combing through the wilds of Goodreads to see if this book is worth pre-ordering or buying, the answer's simple:


The Only Harmless Great Thing is a raw nerve, played by an orchestra. A song of ache and ghosts, radium girls whispering from across the ether, a thousand bad things tied together with
Alasdair Stuart
Sep 16, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Brooke Bolander's work has been defined to date by a combination of relentlessly precise language and colossal emotion depth and focus. Her short fiction is seared through with images that linger after you've finished reading and turns of phrase that sit on the backs of your eyes like the after image of the Sun. There is nothing that she's written that is less than brilliant.

This is the best thing she's written to date.

Combining two separate historical atrocities, Bolander explores both the scan
Try not to judge them; their mothers were short-lived, forgetful things, clans led by bulls with short memories and shorter tempers.

"Them" above being the human race - good luck not feeling at least a little judgy by the end of this excellent novella.

Combine the real world inspiration of Topsy the elephant, with another real life story of the Radium Girls, with another almost-true story of using glowing animals to warn future generations of nuclear waste hazards (happily someone remembered sign
Matthew Quann
Aug 09, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: novella, sci-fi
A charming oddity, The Only Harmless Great Thing provided an evening of loquacious elephants, radiation, and some surprisingly tight writing. Though an atypical choice of subject matter, an alternate history of the radium girls crossed with intelligent and communicative elephants works surprisingly well. Alternating between a modern and 1920s-era storyline, Bolander positions the historical influence of the unfolding 1920s story as an impetus for the modern research-oriented tale. It makes for a ...more
Apr 02, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Combining the sad and sickening histories of the US radium dial painters and an abused and murdered elephant, Topsy, Brooke Bolander has crafted a tightly written, brutal story of corporate greed and inhumane treatment, with some beautiful, elephant myth-making.
3.75 stars.

The Only Harmless Great Thing is one of the most unusual books I've ever read. It's alternate history, and maybe it's even set in an alternate universe, as here elephants can talk with human through sign language.

Its premise is brilliant in its simplicity and weirdness: what if we combined the tragic story of Topsy the elephant with the tragic story of the Radium Girls? It's a great idea, really - in its very few pages, this novelette manages to talk about both the exploitation of wom
Sep 20, 2018 rated it liked it
Glow in the dark elephants and the radium girls who love them. Bolander is a rising talent who concerns herself less with what she says and more with how she says it, much like the Bedknobs and Broomsticks song: "It really doesn't matter what I say, what I say, as long as I say it with a flair!" The story itself is a mess, a mashup of alternate history with some SJW mores (it's no coincidence that all the male characters are evil), but the prose is beautiful at times making this a short but inte ...more
May 03, 2018 rated it really liked it
I LOVED this.

At times the prose took a bit of effort to get through, but that's because the prose is so lush. It leaned a little heavily on consonance, but ultimately I think that served as a great metaphor. The Many Mothers (the collective memory/storytelling archetype of this story's sentient elephants) tell their stories in song, so adding a level of lyricality to the prose enhanced that aspect of the story.

I enjoyed the structure of this novella quite a bit. It's essentially told in three pa
Michael Hicks
The Only Harmless Great Thing is a tough one for me to digest, and I'm not quite sure what to say about it. The narrative round-robins its way through multiple points of view: we have, at the book's core, an alternate history take on the Radium Girls, factory girls who were killed by radiation poisoning, who are being replaced by elephants; we have a story strand set in the future; and we have the myth of it all, stretching across the span of existence, as told by elephants relaying the stories ...more
I feel kind of bad about my rating after seeing so many raving about this, saying how tragically sad this is, but I didn't feel anything at all while reading this.

It's a typical "it's me, not you" case because the writing style wasn't for me at all and had me more confused than anything else. I just couldn't get into it and was waiting to actually feel something but I felt completely disconnected to it the events of the story from start to finish.
Feb 11, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2018, owned
The language and emotion are very compelling in this story about injustice, anger and violence. I enjoyed the breathlessness and the imagery, and the way disparate strands were brought together to weave a story. Alas, I also couldn't quite suspend my disbelief for some aspects of the tale that are left untold and only implied ((view spoiler)), and that's why I only liked it over ...more
This was an interesting idea - a rewriting/reimagined history combining the female Newark workers affected by radiation in the early 1900s, and the electrocution of an elephant in Coney Island which took place around the same time.

Sounds good on paper but it didn't work for me. The first part was super confusing - there were about three different narrators and too much was going on. The second part was more readable but most of my interest had been lost by then. There were glimmers of something
May 15, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2017
Well that was a punch in the gut.
8.5/10 - Review at PBTVS

Books like this remind me just why I love Sci-fi/Fantasy. Not that I need reminders. Not really. I grew up teething on SFF stories, after all. But occasionally a story comes along that fills me with so much fierce pride and wonder and envy, it leaves me breathless, and they become testaments to the (limitless) heights one can reach in the genre.

In The Only Harmless Great Thing, Brooke Bolander takes two true, but disparate, stories--that of the women who worked in U.S. ra
In the beginning I was really confused and had to start again because I didn’t get that there are more than two different narratives. In general I liked it a lot, it‘s something really special and unique and that in under 100 pages. What I didn’t need was the parts of the elephant mother. The ending I honestly didn’t totally understand ((view spoiler) I‘m no physicist!). What a tragedy t ...more
I have read some great stories by Brooke Bolander - but I've been itching for a novel/la.

And here it is.

but she's scared me off: All reviews say it's a punch straight to the gut.

In this political and gut-wrenching time, IDK if I can do that.

So I'm saving her for later. When I feel like getting my ass handed to me.
Corey White
Mar 03, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Bolander weaves together a phenomenal book using different points-of-view from different periods of time with immense skill. Each voice is distinct, and the mythology building on display here puts me in mind of Ursula K. Le Guin (particularly Always Coming Home).
Nov 21, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: arc-paper
I was fortunate to receive an Advance Reader Copy of this book.

I'm going to need a word count for my 2019 Hugo nominations in order to know whether this is a novelette (as I suspect) or a novella (what so many other people are saying).

This very affecting, slender book was so emotionally powerful that I set it aside for a bit half way because I kept crying while reading it. A story about dangerous, terrible lies, both the ones others tell us to use us as fodder, and the ones we tell ourselves to
Jun 14, 2018 rated it really liked it
Not quite what I expected; for a book about rage and injustice, to me this novelette brought surprising comfort and a sense of strength. It was a good surprise, though. And I adored the intertwining of plots and stories - there was no single unnecessary word here, not even one. If I'd like it to be longer, it was because I cared so much for its broken, hurting protagonists.
Bolander has a way with words that is interesting and poetic to read. By no fault of the author, I just struggled to understand how this story was framed and told. Maybe I’ll reread it again sometime when I can focus more but I just didn’t get it.
Meg Elison
Jan 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Beautiful and strange and utterly unique. Will make you sing the 'Aw, Topsy' song from Bob's Burgers, if you know it. But sadder than usual.
Mar 14, 2018 rated it really liked it
The first time I read something by Brooke Bolander it was like reading a song. Not like a pop song or the song of the summer, not a love song or a ballad. More like a break up song or the blues.

Bolander reminds me of Trent Reznor and Bowie singing "Hurt." Her work's reminiscent of Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly," where the narrator is telling you about this man who laid bare their whole life in a song, pulling no punches, offering no flattery, highlighting mistakes and triumphs with equal a
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date January 23rd 2018

I didn’t actually know much about this before picking it up: only that there was an elephant, and it somehow involved the Radium Girls. I loved the bits from the perspective of the elephants, the stories they tell: it might be a little much at length, but in little doses it was cleverly done, figuring out the way they’d think and communicate. I wasn’t in love with the modern-day plot of making the elephants glow (it seemed a lit
Feb 15, 2018 rated it it was amazing
What a wonderful book. What an angry and wonderful book. The Only Harmless Great Thing uchronically weaves together the fates of the women who were cruelly poisoned by radium from painting clock faces, with the fate of Topsy, the circus elephant who was electrocuted as a fun fair spectacle for striking back against the men who tormented her. With that, the book weaves in terminal storage of plutonium and the matriarchal mythology of elephants. In 90 pages. “... no one tale held to the ear by its ...more
Apr 06, 2018 rated it really liked it

A thunderclap of a novella and surprisingly complex given its small frame. Three timelines and arguably four protagonists. And all the while the language here sings. It's exceptionally difficult to maintain the level of poetry present on display past a few pages without watering down the content (or turning up the snooze), but it seems effortless on the page and elevates the action into a kind of Aesopian chorus.

5 pages longer, even 5 paragraphs, and it could have been a five. But m
Christina Pilkington
*3.5 stars

Well, this certainly was one of the most unique novelettes I have ever read!

This alternate history story combines several different subplots into one story. After a group of women working in a factory are exposed to radiation poisoning, a group of elephants who are able to communicate through sign language with humans, are brought in to continue the work in the factory, despite now being exposed themselves to the radiation. Readers also learn more about the elephant mythology and colle
Carla Estruch
Bolander ha conseguido hilar unos hechos reales con una magia narrativa impresionante. El estilo es muy particular, igual que las mujeres y elefantas que protagonizan esta novela corta. Una lectura profunda y emocionante que llega a la patata.
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Sci-fi and Heroic...: The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander 9 18 Sep 25, 2018 03:57PM  
Brooke Bolander writes weird things of indeterminate genre, most of them leaning rather heavily towards fantasy or general all-around weirdness. She attended the University of Leicester 2004-2007 studying History and Archaeology and is an alum of the 2011 Clarion Writers’ Workshop at UCSD. Her stories have been featured in Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, Nightmare, Uncanny, and various other fine pu ...more
“Why do you not fight when there is still breath and blood within you? Why do you not trumpet and flail?” 2 likes
“No matter what you did, forty or fifty or a hundred years passed and everything became a narrative to be toyed with, masters of media alchemy splitting the truth's nucleus into a ricocheting cascade reaction of diverging alternate realities.” 1 likes
More quotes…