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The Only Harmless Great Thing

3.87  ·  Rating details ·  3,486 ratings  ·  731 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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Popular Answered Questions
Yazir Paredes None. One incident was on 1903 (Topsy) and the other 1917-1938 (Radium girls)
The only use of the word "Elephant" and radiation I have found is related…more
None. One incident was on 1903 (Topsy) and the other 1917-1938 (Radium girls)
The only use of the word "Elephant" and radiation I have found is related to the "Elephant's Foot" under the reactor in the Chernobyl disaster. It is a highly radioactive mass composed primarily of silicon dioxide, with traces of uranium, titanium, zirconium, magnesium and graphite.


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Jan 06, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: tor-novellas
**congratulations on your nebula award! best novelette 2018! i do not love the word, but i love the win!**

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
Elle (ellexamines)
“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
✘✘ Sarah ✘✘ (former Nefarious Breeder of Murderous Crustaceans)
Okay, after some very intensive, most scientific research, I have come to the following conclusion: this book was not written by Brooke Bolander but by her evil twin, Crooke Colander. Yes is has. I mean, how else would one explain that I almost quite nearly DNFed this story before the 20% mark? Now if that is isn’t the scientifically irrefutable proof that it is impossibly impossible for Brooke Bolander of the Glorious Talons and Luscious Trail of Dead to have written the present, most discombob ...more
Heidi The Reader
Author Brooke Bolander takes two unrelated historical events and ties them together in an effort to make a statement about the inherent darkness in humanity. Historically speaking, an elephant named Topsy was actually put to death by electrocution. The radium dial painters, whom you can read about in The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women, actually existed.

In this science fiction/alternative history story, elephants are a sentient race, forced to work where the radium girls
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
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
Jan 27, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 7k-challenge, sci-fi
I received this for free as part of’s free ebook of the month club. I wasn’t terribly excited about it when I saw it. But free is free and it was quick so I took a chance, and I’m so glad I did!

First- content warnings, because this isn’t an easy book to stomach. (view spoiler)

I started this and admittedly had no idea what was going on. I thought it was pretty weird the story was being told by an elephant
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
Apr 02, 2018 rated it really liked it
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.
Jun 26, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2019-shelf, sci-fi
Oh, humanity, SHAME ON YOU.

This is a shamefest of shameful shenanigans, from Radium Girls to massive mistreatment of elephants...

But unlike us and our own grasp of history, THEY WILL REMEMBER. :)

I've read a few of Bolander's stories and they all struck me as hardcore. In the sense that they hit hard and make you feel it in your gut and gonads, barely letting up long enough to go for another sucker punch.

Let's face it. We don't look at the crap we do to ourselves very well. Narrative restructur
I started this novelette with zero expectation, really. It was free from so I grabbed it and put it away in my read-whenever shelf. And then it became a Nebula nominee. And then I read my friend's reviews that sing full praises.

I finished the novelette smiling. It is profound tale, much more than just an alternate history. I love the poetic quality of the non-human POV, especially since it was laced with mythology. I am a sucker for fighting injustice stories, and this one is about the s
Matthew Quann
Aug 09, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: sci-fi, pretty-short
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
Elena C.
Read for the 2019 MacHalo Splendiferous Book Bingo Thingie: Matriarchs & Sirens.

Kat grew up, as most America children did, associating elephants with the dangers of radiation.

Books like The Only Harmless Great Thing are the very reason why I love reading: there's nothing like sitting back and gleefully enjoy the fruits of other people's creative efforts, especially when they reach such high peaks of awesomeness. Throw in a glass of good wine and a purring cat and that's the life, really. Bro
Feb 01, 2019 added it
Shelves: did-not-finish
I am quitting this. The writing is just taking too much concentration for me to figure out who is talking, what they are talking about. It's only 100 pages but @ 15% felt like 500- It's not the book for me. ...more
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
Rachel Aranda
I received a free digital copy from Tor Publishing in exchange for an honest review. This in no way affects my opinion.

The premise 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 by Thomas Edison on Coney Island, which took place around the same time. This is a complicated novella to follow as we have 3 timelines: the elephant folklore, elephant workers at the radiation pla
RJ - Slayer of Trolls
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
Para (wanderer)
Short but stunning. Despite probably not being long enough to even qualify as a novella, there's a lot packed inside the small space. It's about history, revisionism, stories, taking your truth back, humans exploiting other species without regard for anything but ourselves. And it's beautiful. Highly, highly recommended.
Stories, too, they discovered. But it was a funny thing: They were shattered into pieces, like the Great Mother who had scattered them, and no one tale held to the ear by itse
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.
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
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
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
Tori (InToriLex)
Dec 05, 2018 rated it it was amazing

Content Warning: Graphic Violence, Animal Cruelty, Animal Death, Radiation Poisoning

In less than a hundred pages I fell in love with a elephant and cried for real humans I never knew. This book is a tour de force glimpse into the unforgiving way industry has poisoned people, animals and the environment in our recent past. The book follows the life of a female factory worker who is dying from radiation poison due to her work in a factory and Topsy an elephant who is being trained to c
There is a lot of creativity packed into this slim novella. As others mention, it does defy categorization; alternative history and fantasy really don't do it justice. The best way I can describe it is the author has taken two terrible wrongs commited in history and given the victims agency. It's quite unconventional for the first half, but I got my bearings by the second half and shed a tear by the end.

If you've read this and enjoyed the elephant mythology, I highly recommend the book The Whit
Jun 16, 2019 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: did-not-finish
DNF at 21%. I found this to be almost unreadable. It took me three attempts to just get past the opening paragraphs. Overly wordy and constructed.

I made the effort to find out more about the events that Bolander took and merged to make her own novelette. Links below. Utterly depressing and horrible.

That combined with the overblown prose results in this: Not my thing. Sorry.

Background of the real-life Radium Girls:

And details about the real-life elephant T
May 15, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2017
Well that was a punch in the gut.
Aug 16, 2019 rated it really liked it
This is one of the finalists of 2019 World Fantasy Awards in Best Novella category. A shocking, dark alternative history book.

Jerrie (redwritinghood)
This alternative history was imaginative, but ultimately there wasn’t enough here to keep me invested in the story.
It seems I'm in the minority here, everyone seems to absolutely love this novella.
I honestly appreciate what Bolander wanted to do, it's just that I didn't like her writing style. That's my only issue here and it's a very subjective one. Bolander's prose isn't bad by any means, but it's so lyrical that it kept distracting me from what was going on in the story.
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
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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

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