I first read about “The Only Harmless Great Thing” as a Big Idea on John Scalzi’s blog. It instantly intrigued me but the past year has been very hard on me and left me in a fragile state so I was reluctant to read anything that I would find disturbing. Still, I kept seeing references to it and realized that I needed the beauty and magic that the story promised.
“The Only Harmless Great Thing” is a novella that tells the story of an alternate world where “elephants have been recognized as sentient beings. Of course, that hasn’t stopped their exploitation, because when has it ever?” (So says the author via the Big Idea.) She describes the story as short and angry, and so it is, as well as strange and defiant.
It takes only an hour or so to read but the story and characters make themselves at home in your head. Each narrator has a distinct voice and the disparate points of view get braided together to tell an exquisite tale. The story revolves around Regan – whose body is decaying painfully as a result of her employment in a factory painting watch dials with radioactive paint – and her relationship with Topsy, one of the elephants being trained to replace human workers in the factory because their more massive bodies can handle more radiation exposure before succumbing to the lethal effects. There is also Kat, a scientist who is trying to negotiate with a representative of the elephants. Finally there is Furmother-With-The-Cracked-Tusk, who long ago gave stories to her people.
The callous disregard for the Radium girls and the horrific mistreatment of elephants are both part of our world, our history. I have read with indignation and sadness about both but here those stories are woven together with new elements to create not a tapestry but a Rouffignac cave painting flickering in the torchlight of imagination and fury. The ending is rather abrupt but overall the story is a wonder and everyone should read it.