Book Review: The Only Harmless Great Thing

This 2019 novelette, published by Tor, relates the tale of early-twentieth workers exposed to radioactive material—as it might have transpired if elephants were sentient.

It won the Nebula, and has been nominated for the Hugo, Shirley Jackson, Locus, and Theodore T. Sturgeon Awards.

So, is it a musth-read?

Yes, that’s a terrible pun, and the book focuses on female elephants. Moving on….

Author: Brooke Bolander

First published 2019

ISBN-10: 1250169488
ISBN-13: 978-1250169488

Available from Amazon,, and as a kindle.


Factory workers in New Jersey died slowly from exposure to radium. This occurred.
After Topsy the Elephant killed a human being, they executed her by electrocution on Coney Island. This also occurred.

In an alternate reality where humans can communicate with sentient elephants, these events come to a more explosive conclusion than they did in ours.

High Points:

Bolander’s deft style allows her, in fragment, to communicate more about character and world-building in just under 100 pages than many writers manage in multi-part epic-length tomes.

Low Points:

Many people will find the book, with its poetic style, multiple voices, and its character’s ethically problematic decisions, a difficult read.

The Scores:

Originality: 4/6 Bolander draws on real history but, in the end, we have a novella about early twentieth-century workers exposed to radiation in a world where humans coexist with sentient elephants.

Imagery: 6/6

The country hospital, like all hospitals, is a place to make the skin on the back of your neck go prickly. It’s white as a dead dog’s bloated belly on the outside, sickly green on the inside, and filled to the gills with kinless folk too poor to go off and die anywhere else. Nuns drift down the hallways like backroads haints. The walls have crazy jagged lightning cracks zigzagging from baseboard to fly-speckled ceiling. Both sides of he main sick ward are lined with high windows, but the nuns aren’t too particular about their housekeeping; the yellow light slatting in is filtered through a nice healthy layer of dust, dirt, and dying people’s last words (21)

Story: 5/6 The various narratives come together, but many readers will find it challenging, especially until they have put the pieces together. The pieces, for some people, will take a long time coming together.

Characterization: 5/6 Bolander creates a sense of elephants as distinct sentient creatures, not quite like us. Their lore feels real, in the way that recalls the Dogs of the Demilitarized Zones in Gravity’s Rainbow. I regard this as very high praise.

Emotional Response: 5/6

Editing: 6/6

Overall score: 6/6

In total, The Only Harmless Great Thing receives 37/42