If you are a Human who uses social media, grew up on the internet, are a part of modern society, have regular access to the internet, or sometimes wonder how the world has become as angry and loud as it currently is, you need to read Hank Green’s “An Absolutely Remarkable Thing.” Ideally, everyone should read it. I doubt it’s the first book of its kind, but I don’t know if any other book like it speaks with as much experience, is written with as much clarity, or delivers as powerful a message as Hank Green’s does. This Science Fiction/Coming-of-Age-For-The-Modern-Twenty-Something novel is the beginning of something big that I can’t really put my finger on, but everyone I know who has read it agrees with me so I’m inclined to believe my gut on this one. You should read this so you don’t fall behind. Also, if you someone miss that feeling of something on the horizon or don’t really get what I’m talking about, you’ll at least have read a good book.
Even though this book doesn’t really fit into any of the modern genres, I still think it’s useful to talk about it in those contexts. This is a science fiction novel because it involves a world much like our own with a few changes, all of which could be explained by technological advances. It also talks about the way technology (in this case, social media) impacts civilization and offers some wonderful, insightful commentary on the lives of Humans and on Humanity as a whole. It is a Coming-of-Age novel because it involves the growth of a character from a more “childlike” mindset to a more “adult” one, even if all it really does is show an adult, albeit one in their early-to-mid-twenties, becoming wiser and more responsible as a result of the challenges they face and overcome. The book, at its core, is both of these things done in the best ways possible. The story focuses on a young woman who suddenly finds herself going viral and what she does as a result of that. She makes mistakes, she learns a more about how the world and Humanity works, and she ultimately makes a statement about the Human Condition.
Even though you can’t really separate it from those genres, it still shouldn’t be lumped into them without an asterisk. Instead of the usual coming-of-age story about a child becoming an adult or leaving behind the carefree days of youth for the responsibilities of adulthood, this story is about the uncertainty modern twenty-somethings face and the way that we struggle to find a place to exist in the world. Above all else, though, it’s a story about the internet and how Hank Green feels about it, as told through a fictional setting making use of hyperbole to make a point. If you don’t know who Hank Green is, he’s the younger half of the Vlog Brothers and the person who has most relentlessly pursued a pro-internet agenda. He’s started dozens of companies, or at least started dozens of big projects, like various educational shows with their own YouTube channels, a side channel for his process and projects as a whole, 2D glasses for people like me (well, people like his wife) who get headaches when we watch 3D movies, at least one charity, multiple conventions, and so much more. He has been a huge part of internet culture for a long time and he has firmly advocated that the internet is a good thing.
If you went to one of his book events or have read the book, you know he doesn’t really believe that anymore. Now, he seems pretty clear that the internet is a tool. Whether it is good or bad depends entirely on how it’s used. He has a lot more to say on the topic, but I don’t trust myself to properly recall the talk he gave at his book event and I will update this review with a video about it if he ever posts one (or if I find one he’s previously posted). To summarize, though, we basically failed to establish rules on the internet and that has allowed a lot of very angry and very loud people to have influence we should have denied them. Unlike physical societies or communities, there aren’t strict mores governing how we treat each other on the internet. Closely tied communities like the Nerdfighters (what the fans of the Green Brothers call themselves) might have some, but the internet at large does not, nor do a lot of internet communities. All of which is an important part of understanding what Hank Green says in his book during the times the protagonist, April May, interacts with her fan communities. Or strangers on the internet. Or the communities that sprung up specifically to oppose her. There’s a lot of really good social commentary that feels particularly relevant after the shitshow that was 2015 and 2016 wound up deciding to carry on through the present. There are entire characters, antagonists mostly, who map to some of the negativity and hate that we’ve seen crop up since then, and it’s all shown to us by someone who knows what it is like to be an internet celebrity, to be able to influence thousands of people with a single tweet. Someone who knows what that power can do to people has reached out and shown us what that power can do to the person who has it and wants to use it for good.
Even without all that, it’s still a really engaging book that addresses the age-old question of “what would it look like if we had an encounter with an alien species?” The story is about a young woman who finds what looks to be a new art installation in New York City when she’s heading home from work late one night, and how her life changes as she becomes the official face of what the world has taken to calling “the Carls,” which are the exact same art installation that appeared in cities all over the world at the exact same moment. There’s romance, heartbreak, violence, and even a bit of heartwarming friendship all mixed into a plot that could carry the book on its own. April May has to figure out what the art installations are and defend her beliefs about them in front of an international. audience before the people who are senselessly promoting fear and hate get ahead of her, or else she’ll lose what she believes in one of the best opportunities she has to be a force for good in the world.
The writing itself is clean, pleasant, and easy to follow. It reflects the way Hank thinks and talks in his YouTube videos. Hank tends to keep his sentences brisk and direct, heading directly toward his meaning like they’re going to lose out if they don’t get there quickly. It works really well for a book like “An Absolutely Remarkable Thing,” a story told as if the narrator were speaking to us or writing an informal blog post. There are a few places where that backfires a bit, ending in some grammatically correct but difficult sentences were the verb tenses combine to make a tangle of words, but there’s literally no way to avoid this in the English language if you’re writing a first-person narrative in the past-tense about events that happened but are still sorta of a part of life when the story is being told and specific things might even still be happening the day the reader picks up the book. I don’t really ascribe to the whole “English rifles through the pockets of other languages for loose grammar” derision a lot of people express (I literally studied the languages that combined to become English and the history of the English language, so I’ve got a view-point that most people don’t have), but I will say that past tense talking about events still ongoing is a pain in the ass to write. These moments that no one can avoid are the only burrs in the story and it wouldn’t have been as powerful any other way. Just keep going if you hit them. The meaning of each sentence is clear enough, they just sound weird in your head or out loud.
While we only see one character in detail, we get enough of a picture of the other characters for them to all feel incredibly real. Even the bossy, sorta nasty PR woman who basically takes on all of April May’s publicity and contacts stuff seems like a real person you’ve met even if she’s only in the story a handful of times. The main antagonist, who sees The Carls as something to be feared and hated rather than as something that could unite Humanity, even gets the same treatment. Despite appearing as a caricature of hate (like a lot of internet personalities), Hank Green manages to make it clear that this person has depth to them, even if all we see if their caricature because the narrator doesn’t spend much time on them. More than any one character, though, Humanity as a whole gets one of the best depictions I’ve ever read. We’re depicted as beings who want to simplify and who often define ourselves not by what we support but by what we fight against. Some of whom will embrace hate or fall prey to fear when we’re up against something we don’t understand instead of taking a chance on hope and love. It’s honestly kind of refreshing to see someone who regularly witnesses the best and worst of humanity as an online media presence show us in a truthful and complex light rather than just one extreme or the other.
You should read this book. Everyone should read this book. I’ve bought three copies and am planning to buy more, just so I can give it away to people. If you really want it but can’t afford it, I will try to buy it for you, finances permitting (I can’t afford to buy one for everyone, though I totally would if I could). Buy it for yourself and then treat yourself to an afternoon of reading. Knock it out in one sitting and then bask a book that is the start of something much bigger than itself. Maybe in a few more years, there’ll be an entire genre for books about finding meaning in the twenty-first century and trying to grow as a twenty-something. I can’t wait to see what comes of this movement and I’m going to do my best to be a part of it.