Brooke Bolander on Radium Girls, Elephants, and Remembering the Worst of History in The Only Harmless Great Thing

Brooke Bolander’s The Only Harmless Great Thing is an alternate history melding elements of real events with science fiction and tragedy, and it’s an extraordinary debut from an extraordinary author. Bolander’s short fiction has appeared in a swath of genre publications and been anthologized; last year, her short story “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” was a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, Locus and World Fantasy awards. On the eve of publication of her longest work to date, we talked to her about the new book’s extraordinary origin story, and the demands of writing from the point of view of a different species.

Tell us a little about the novella—and, perhaps, the origin of the title?
The Only Harmless Great Thing is a wee-ninsy little slip of a novelette detailing an alternate history where elephants are what most of humanity would recognize as sentient (they seem pretty damned sentient to me in this reality, but you get my drift). They have their own language they use to communicate with humans, but humans don’t particularly care; they are still exploited, abused, and enslaved. Language and sentience have never stopped us from ruthlessly exploiting one another, after all.

In the real life case of the Radium Girls, factory workers of the early twentieth century who were knowingly allowed to ingest radioactive paint at their jobs [painting watch dials] until they began to die. In the world of the book, the solution to this incident is to buy and use abused circus elephants for the delicate task of painting the watch dials. An elephant is large, and she can take in far more of the dangerous paint before she succumbs to radiation poisoning. More importantly, she can’t take you to court over it.

One of the elephants employed is Topsy, the real-life victim of a horrific and infamous public execution at Coney Island in 1903. A Radium Girl, slowly dying of jaw cancer, is kept on to teach her animal replacement the ropes of a job that has sentenced them both to a slow and horrible death. From mutual exploitation they strike up a kind of understanding. Things snowball from there. Terrible choices are made—choices that will also have massive ramifications in an alternate present and a far-flung future.

Also there are elephant folk tales of a wooly mammoth matriarch progenitor called Furmother, and a post-apocalyptic elephantine Greek chorus, because, if you haven’t noticed, this is a deeply weird puzzle box of a novelette.

The title is lifted from John Donne’s 1612 poem The Progress of the Soul:

“Nature’s great masterpiece, an elephant,
The only harmless great thing, the giant
Of beasts, who thought none had, to make him wise,
But to be just and thankful, loth to offend
—Yet nature hath given him no knees to bend
Himself he up-props, on himself relies,
And foe to none, suspects no enemies—
Still sleeping stood; vex’d not his fantasy
Black dreams; like an unbent bow carelessly
His sinewy proboscis did remissly lie.”

The book combines two horrifying pieces of overlooked history, creating something very different. How did you come across these events?
As far as the public electrocution of Topsy goes, I’ve got an exhaustive and quite honestly depressing knowledge of ill-used animals in the historical context; previously I wrote a piece on Laika, and an upcoming short story debuting later in the year deals with Benjamin, the last thylacine. Next time I’m writing about happy otters who drink hot cocoa or something, just to shake things up.

Although otters don’t do well in captivity and shouldn’t be eating people food. Dammit. See how my mind works?

I don’t know how it originally got in there, but the Radium Girls story had been bumping around in my head for awhile, pissing me off. It’ll piss you off too, once you learn about it. It’s an absolute nadir in American worker rights. There’s no reason it should have happened. I haven’t cracked it yet, but I hear Kate Moore’s recent nonfiction book on the whole ghastly thing is a pretty great place to start if you don’t already have a working knowledge of the facts.

What made these disparate incidents stick in your mind?
If you’ve ever seen the actual footage of Topsy’s electrocution—it’s [a film short] titled Electrocuting an Elephant, it’s about a minute long, and I don’t recommend watching it if you want to sleep well tonight—it’s pretty hard to forget.

Ditto the pictures of teenage girls with their jaws swollen and rotting from the effects of the radium poisoning they had unknowingly been subjected to. The girls were used to make a quick profit at the cost of their lives, and until recently there was hardly any memory of them at all, outside of their families and the communities where the factories once stood in New Jersey and Illinois. There’s only one monument to the Radium Girls, and the reason it exists is because a middle schooler in Ottawa, Illinois learned what had happened in her hometown and wouldn’t stop petitioning until a statue was finally erected to honor their memory.

I can’t right the wrongs of the past, but as a writer I can damn well make a few more people aware of them. 

You do an incredible job of getting inside the mind of a different, sentient species. How did you go about doing that?
Animals are the closest thing to aliens we’ll probably ever have direct contact with (especially if aliens see how we’ve been treating them). They share our world, our environment, sometimes even our homes, but they have skills and senses that mean they navigate those spaces in an utterly different way. The tightrope is to keep that alienness intact while still making them recognizably empathetic to human audiences. Elephants communicate through sound and touch and taste. Their societies are incredibly sophisticated, tight-knit, and almost entirely matriarchal. There’s plenty for human readers to relate to there, right?

But they are still elephants, not people in big baggy leather pajamas. And while I can make a stab at guessing how they think, I’m also fairly certain it’s absolutely nothing like anything you or I could imagine. So, like most science fiction: I made it all up.

How did the novella evolve as you wrote it?
I had the idea to combine Topsy’s story and that of the Radium Girls way back in 2013, but initially, I couldn’t figure out a good way to tackle it. If I did it poorly, I feared, it would feel like two historical events shoehorned together on a whim. You read stories like that sometimes, where you can tell the writer just learned a really cool fact and wrote the story primarily because they wanted to use it in some fashion. Now, there’s not a thing wrong with writing a story because you learned something neat-o, but in most of those cases, the rest of the story comes off as almost an afterthought—the plot and the characters trudge along in service of the inciting idea, instead of it going the other way around. It’s a pet peeve of mine. I don’t dig it.

I forced myself to be patient. I waited for a story to come to me that needed Topsy and a Radium Girl, something that had the right-fitting combination of ideas and themes and throughlines. It took three more years to finally gel, but when it did, I sat down and finished it in two weeks. No rewrites were needed.

Did anything not make the cut?
I actually wrote a piece recently featured on Tor.com about all the interesting, bizarre, and entirely true bits of the story I couldn’t find a use for. My favourite has to be the legend of Topsy’s vengeful ghost, who allegedly came back a year later to terrify the builders of Coney Island on dark nights with her “eyes burning, feet wide apart, and trunk issuing sparks of fire.” I found out about this story AFTER the book was completed. It was intensely frustrating. 

One of the things I love about the novella is the tone. It feels like a historic event but also part of the process of history. Do you have any plans for further stories set in this world?
I really wanted it to feel as natural and lived-in as an alternate history involving sentient elephants possibly could. If it didn’t, I knew, the entire house of cards would pull a murmuration down around my ears. I’m pleased that you think I more or less succeeded.

I don’t foresee any other stories set in this world. If a good idea popped up, certainly, but for the time being I think that wardrobe door is firmly closed. I try my best never to do the same thing twice. I get bored quickly, and that’s a pretty loud death knell for the kind of story I like to write.

What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve got several short stories I owe various anthologies—which means learning how to write on one specific topic under deadline, something I’ve historically never been all that great at—and a fantasy novel in the works that’s finally coming together after eight or nine years of not feeling skilled enough to pull it off to my rather exacting standards. If you’ve ever wondered what a plain ol’ secondary-world fantasy novel might look like if it uncoiled my weirdo head, well, prepare to wonder no longer.

The Only Harmless Great Thing is available now.

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