An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green
If you know Hank Green as one-half of the Vlogbrothers, you may do exactly what I’ve done, which is read his debut novel, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, in his voice, not that of the young female narrator and protagonist, April May. If you need help with that, here’s a video of Hank reading the first chapter. As I read the novel, I found myself nodding along with my thought, That’s exactly what Hank would say. Being a writer myself, I know how hard it is to distance your voice from your characters’ voices. While sometimes Hank’s voice slips in place of April’s, Hank ensures she is different from himself by writing about a character completely different from himself: a twenty-three-year-old bisexual girl. Now that doesn’t sound like Hank at all.
Also if you know Hank, you know he’s interested in science and the mechanisms of the human mind, both of which are deeply explored in this book with the help of a possibly alien robot April names Carl. The story is told from the point of view of a now deceased or inhuman April May, and from the get-go, the reader is promised “near death and actual death,” which itself is pretty intriguing. Why is it that people want to read about some kind of death happening? Well, as much as this is a sci-fi book meant to be entertaining, it also explores the human experience, particularly the individualistic and attention-seeking nature that drives us.
In terms of the writing and realism, or as much realism sci-fi includes, there are holes that aren’t filled and leave me wondering why small practicalities weren’t addressed as closely as the bigger life questions. This includes the presence of the parental characters. In children’s and YA books, parents are the hardest to get rid of or actualize. But when April is in over her head with a possibly alien robot and thrown into the savage media, upon other things, shouldn’t the parents have more of a reaction? I know I’d be grounded for life if I was April!
The pacing of the story is also inconsistent. As a writer, one knows about the middle sag, the part of the story that slows. Hank tries to cure this by making a long period of time go by faster by using vignettes that are sandwiched between two long consistent passages of time. Rather than separating the story into two or three parts, which may have worked better, the middle is dispersed into the important bits that occur over a period of time, while the first and third acts are told in a streamlined manner. This threw me off plot-wise but didn’t take away from the ideas at large.
To start, April May is thrust into the spotlight once she and her best friend, Andy, upload a video to the Internet about a mysterious metal sculpture she finds in the middle of 23rd Street in New York City. The video goes viral as 63 other Carls pop up in major cities throughout the world. April may be the one who has made First Contact with a lifeform not of this Earth. Within hours, every media channel wants a piece of April, and soon, April is swept into the current of Internet popularity and what she calls Tier 3 fame, which is recognizability in random places and fame dependent on one’s job. She is coached by Andy’s father, who is a lawyer, and her new agent on what to say during each talk show. Everything is scripted and planned. April May becomes a brand, no longer a person, igniting the overall conversation of dehumanization of social influencers. The reader is exposed to April’s unraveling as she ruins her relationships with her girlfriend and those close to her pre-Carl.
While April is hellbent on solving the mystery of the Carls, she loses herself and the love of artistry that originally drew her to the sculpture in the first place. An Absolutely Remarkable Thing takes so many turns into the unearthly unknown in an attempt to actualize people of different backgrounds and hailing from different countries coming together to solve a puzzle. It begs the question, Is this actually possible? There is a realistic divide amongst the characters in the book, radicals who turn their fears into violence, which is prevalent in our own reality. But is it possible that humans can use their intellect and advancement in technology, science, and creativity to do something together? Hank really dives into this as a fundamental question about humanity. What about humanity makes this possible or impossible, and what can get in the way of something so dire as protecting the human species?
I had the privilege of attending Hank’s tour for An Absolutely Remarkable Thing in New York City, the first show of the tour! During his talk, he said that he hoped people will become more empathetic toward people doing the same thing. I think this book represents that ideology in question very well. It’s a book of human philosophy in the age of the Internet, virality, and instantaneous notoriety.
Find An Absolutely Remarkable Thing here.