Saturday, January 27, 2018

The Only Harmless Great Thing, by Brooke Bolander

[Tor Novella]
★★★★☆ Great characters, deeply moving

(Alternate History) In a world where we learned to talk to elephants in the 1800s, we get two stories about how elephants were associated with radioactivity, how they (and people) were abused, and what came of it all. (16,825 words; Time: 56m)

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Mini-Review (click to view--possible spoilers)

Pro: An important reason to like this story is the beautiful writing, but there's a cool setting and moving characters as well.

This is an alternate-history story in which people learned to talk to elephants in the 1890s. It’s divided into three parts which interact with each other beautifully. 

January 1903: Topsy’s electrocution at Luna Park ends with the radioactive destruction of most of the bystanders. Vengeance for her and Regan alike. The ending is tear-jerking: “Are you well? Can you walk? It’s just a little further. We’ll go together.”

Topsy, Luna Park, and US Radium  were all real parts of our reality, and the most horrible details in the story are things that really happened.

Present day (more or less): This is the lightest of the three sections, where we learn how Kat persuaded the elephants to accept the job of watching the nuclear-waste dump, trusting in their inherited group memory to stand the test of time. The most important thing we learn here is that the elephants accepted their stewardship voluntarily—possibly as an homage to Topsy.

500,000 AD: On rereading it, the three-paragraph introduction is utterly chilling. Half a million years after the rains have worn to nothing the warning messages carved into the rock, the elephants still stand guard and still remember the terrible secret hidden under the mountain.

They still remember Topsy. We recognize her in the myth they tell—and maybe a little bit of Kat too.

Con: It’s hard to believe that glow-in-the-dark elephants would really do all that much to keep any new civilization out of the waste dump. Given the awful description of the land they got, it’s hard to believe they survived at all.

Was Topsy worthy of worship? She and Regan killed a bunch of innocent people, and even if that led to reform of the treatment of people and animals alike, they didn’t know that when they did it.

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Brooke Bolander Info: Interviews, Websites, ISFDB, FreeSFOnline

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