A book about giant robots from space that mysteriously appear out of nowhere in 64 cities all around the world written by Hank Green, one-half of one of my favorite YouTube channels? Sign me up! An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is the debut novel from Hank Green, co-creator of the YouTube channel Vlogbrothers and the brother of best-selling YA novelist John Green. It’s a book about more than giant alien robot statues invading the Earth. It’s a book about how fame corrupts us, the dangers of radicalization, and what makes us human. It’s also really, really good.
The Carls just appeared. Coming home from work at three a.m., twenty-three-year-old April May stumbles across a giant sculpture. Delighted by its appearance and craftsmanship–like a ten-foot-tall Transformer wearing a suit of samurai armor–April and her friend Andy make a video with it, which Andy uploads to YouTube. The next day April wakes up to a viral video and a new life. News quickly spreads that there are Carls in dozens of cities around the world–everywhere from Beijing to Buenos Aires–and April, as their first documentarian, finds herself at the center of an intense international media spotlight.
Now April has to deal with the pressure on her relationships, her identity, and her safety that this new position brings, all while being on the front lines of the quest to find out not just what the Carls are, but what they want from us.
Compulsively entertaining and powerfully relevant, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing grapples with big themes, including how the social internet is changing fame, rhetoric, and radicalization; how our culture deals with fear and uncertainty; and how vilification and adoration spring from the same dehumanization that follows a life in the public eye.
I wanna say from the outset that I didn’t love this book. It’s a very good read but there are a few things that keep it from being as good as I wanted it to be. I’ll get to those in a bit, but first, let’s talk about the good stuff because there’s a lot of it. The first really good thing is the premise itself. It’s no coincidence that other science fiction stories have used the idea of some kind of alien presence suddenly appearing over multiple cities all across the world at exactly the same time before. It’s a visual that’s immediately threatening and captivating. What makes it stand out in this book is how Hank Green uses that trope. His use of it is one of the first instances where social media breaks the story of the arrival of the alien presence. The Carls appear early in the morning and soon news spreads all across social media of their presence. They don’t speak and they don’t move and there’s no information as to why they’re there. They just are there. A large part of the book is given over to various characters trying to figure out why they’re there and how people respond to it and the political fallout from their appearances. It’s a clever little twist to the idea and it’s the first instance of how central social media, and the radicalization of people through it, will be to the events of this book.
The next great thing is the character of April May. While her characterization sometimes falls into some of the more cliche traits found in a lot of YA novels (more on that later), she’s still a really interesting, really flawed character. The novel is written in first person point-of-view from her perspective and it definitely was the way to go for this story. We’re immediately taken right into her head and throughout the entirety of the book, we understand why she does what she does and what makes her tick. I appreciate that Hank Green doesn’t really make her all that likable. She feels extremely real. By that, I mean that she’s super flawed. She’s a bit selfish at times and she’s often cold to her friends and loved ones. She’s rash and unpredictable and the fame really gets to her head in a super negative way that’s really interesting to witness. She’s not really the typical protagonist you’d expect to find in a story like this. She tries to be the big hero who solves the mystery of the extraterrestrial presence, but more often than not, that blows up in her face and it’s what makes her stand out from a thousand other similar protagonists in similar stories.
The book is more about her struggle with fame and how it corrupts her as a person than it is about the alien Carls. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. If you’re looking for straight-up science fiction, this book isn’t really the book for you. The Carls serve as more of an excuse to explore the themes of the book than the actual central point of the book. April’s experience with immediate, intense fame is the actual focus of the book and it’s extremely compelling. It’s something that Hank Green likely has some experience with given his prominence on YouTube and other social media platforms. Lots of the book explores how April gets more and more dehumanized, both by herself and by those who love and hate her, as she gets more famous and how that kind of dehumanization can impact a person. She becomes addicted to the fame and to being important and a lot of her decisions throughout the book are a direct result of this addiction and it’s super fascinating and often not talked about.
The other thing about this book that I really love is how it explores the impact that social media is having on human discourse. Chapter 13 begins with some really profound statements about the divides between various people (political parties, religions, etc) and how, as we separate ourselves, we begin to stop being willing to even listen to the other side. And that, eventually, leads to a lot of dehumanization of the other side, which often leads to radicalization. Much of the latter half of the book deal with this concept. There are two sides that form up as a response to the appearance of the Carls: those who think the Carls are a force for good, led by April May, and those who think the Carls are a force of evil, led by Peter Petrawicki – a hard-right conspiracy theorist who ends up being the poster boy of a movement, known as the Defenders, who want to rid the world of the Carls. As the story goes on, you see that April has dehumanized Petrawicki and the Defenders so that she can use her hatred of them to strengthen her message of peace while they have done the same to her so they can strengthen their message of hate. Instead of listening to each other, they just hate each other and that hatred leads to some radicalization which becomes the catalyst for the events in the last third of the book. It’s a really interesting take, but it’s not surprising to anyone who’s been following Hank Green on social media for the past year or two. Lots of people are beginning to believe that social media is becoming a breeding ground for the kind of dehumanization of the “other” (whether that’s people who don’t look like us or don’t believe in the same things we do or are from the other political party) which, often but not always, leads to radicalization in a minority of those people, which never ends up being a good thing. Hank Green handles this idea with a lot of care and he explores it really well and it’s easily the most compelling thing about the novel.
There are, unfortunately, a handful of things I didn’t like. The book occasionally veers into the kind of territory that everyone thinks of when they think of YA novels: frustrating relationship angst that doesn’t seem to be a particularly important part of the main narrative. As the story opens, we find out that April is a bisexual woman with a girlfriend named Maya. April isn’t a particularly good girlfriend due to her fear of commitment. Naturally, this leads to some turmoil in the relationship, especially as April gets more famous and gets addicted to that fame and starts treating everyone poorly. This in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the problem is that as the book goes on and all the other themes and plot points become really interesting, the relationship angst ends up shoehorned in and it just takes away from the moment. You’re busy talking about how people are getting radicalized and wanting to do terrible things and then suddenly we spend two pages being angsty about Maya or feeling attracted to one of the other characters and it’s just kinda… unneeded. Early on, April’s agent convinces her to say she’s a lesbian because people will understand that more than they’ll understand bisexuality. This is a really interesting idea. The problem is that it’s then dropped for about half of the book, mentioned again during a pretty explosive scene, and then completely dropped again. Having her be a bisexual woman and having that be an important part of her story isn’t a bad thing. The problem is that it’s really inconsistently handled and as the novel focuses on the other parts of the story, it’s completely forgotten, so the moments when it bounces back to her love life just feel sort of shoehorned in and don’t really work the way I’d like them to work. Essentially, if you’re gonna have relationship drama be part of the story, make sure it actually feels like it’s an important part of the story and not just something that’s thrown away for large parts of the novel.
My other major problem with the novel is its ending. Or, more precisely, its lack of an ending. I won’t go into any specifics, but the novel has a climactic scene but no real resolution. Some stuff happens after the climax, but it doesn’t actually feel like the conclusion to the story. It’s so clearly setting up a sequel that it ends on a really big cliffhanger. The problem is that you’re left feeling really unsatisfied as the book ends. You haven’t been given any real answers as to what the Carls want. You’ve sort of been told why they’re there, but not really. And then this major thing happens and you don’t know how that really plays out and the book just sort of ends. It would be less annoying if, going into the book, I knew that it was probably going to be the first in a series of books. But not knowing that, you expect some kind of resolution to the story and when you don’t get one, it’s rather frustrating.
Neither of those two problems is anywhere near enough to ruin the book for me. In fact, they’re fairly minor. All in all, it’s a really entertaining book. It’s very well written, well developed, and well-paced science fiction novel. Hank Green really captures the voice of April with his narration. He gives his audience a fully fledged, three-dimensional heroine who’s superbly flawed and immensely interesting. He presents a twist on a fairly common science fiction trope and uses it as a way to explore the impacts of social media on our discourse with each other and how that leads to the radicalization of people. It’s a pretty incredible debut novel from a very talented author and I’m extremely excited to see where he’ll take this story in the future. If you like stories that use science fiction ideas to explore the ills of our society, you’ll love this book. It really is very good
4 out of 5 wands