Saturday, May 18, 2019

The Only Harmless Great Thing, by Brooke Bolander

Tom Doherty Associates, January 2018

This is a grim story, but in its own way a beautiful one. Now, those who know me know I don't do grim. At all. Except on the rare occasions that I do.

You may know the story of the Radium Girls. In the early part of the 20th century, young women were employed painting glowing numbers on watch faces, using radium paint. Yes, radium. Yes, it's radioactive, enough to be really dangerous, especially if you work with it constantly or accidentally ingest it.

Who would be so careless as to ingest it, you ask? Well, see, the women weren't told it was dangerous; they were told it was perfectly safe. And of course the best way to get a good point on your paintbrush to paint those fine, exact numbers, was to put it briefly in your mouth every so often.

They all got very sick and there was a big lawsuit, and they died. There are books about the Radium Girls

This is an alternate history, in which after the employment of young women painting radium onto watch faces ends in that lawsuit, the company didn't give up.
Instead, they bought elephants who weren't working out for the circuses. One aspect of this alternate world is that in the 1890s, elephants and people began developing an elephant sign language. This helps make employment of elephants in factory jobs more or less possible. And the elephants, being much larger and stronger than slim young women, take significantly longer than the young women to get sick from radiation poisoning. It's still a much worse idea than what happened in our timeline, where eventually the litigation and the bad publicity made it just not worth the effort to make them in any significant numbers.

And I'm really getting off track with this.

The story follows a former "radium girl" named Regan, who is slowly dying of the radiation poisoning, but in the meantime working with the elephants to teach them to paint watch dials; Topsy, a former circus elephant sold to US Radium after she killed a man who was "teasing" her with a lit cigar end; and Kat, a scientist who, years later, is working on a way to keep the now-buried radioactives safe forever with a warning system that will not fail, erode, or cease to scare people off.

Her solution will involve the willing cooperation of the elephants. The elephants have no obvious reason to cooperate with humans, of course, so Kat has to find an argument to persuade them.

Interspersed are stories from the elephant matriarchs, future and past.

It's a fascinating and absorbing world and story. Highly recommended.

I received this story as part of the 2019 Hugo Voters Packet.

No comments:

Post a Comment