You Should be Reading “An Absolutely Remarkable Thing”

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.

Descent Into Darkness

“Listen well, children, for I shall tell you of the world we lost and how this place came to be. Of what once was and may someday be again.

“The world was peaceful, once. A place of prosperity, light, and community, where anyone could reach out and connect with whomever they wished. Though conflict remained, it was small and often little more than jest. A brief disagreement blown out of proportion as a symbol of the bond between two brothers. Brothers born from a shared love rather than the same mother. Truly a time when the commonality between men mattered more than the weak bonds of blood and circumstance.

“Some decried this time of peace and love as nothing more than the death throes of a society brought down by its own complacency, and they may have been right, seeing how we now live in darkness and solitude, all that we once held dear lost to us as the great libraries of Alexandria were lost to the Ancients. So to, has much of our culture and what made us great been lost to us with nothing more than the elements to blame. And we, proud and once mighty, assumed ourselves safe from such trite things as a storm or the wind and rain.

“But no. We were proud and we were wrong. And now we pay the price of our hubris as we live out the rest of our days in darkness.”

“Charlie.”

“As the darkness descends ever deeper, we must-”

“Charlie, do you and the kids want cupcakes?”

“Mom! I’m trying to talk about the collapse of human civilization!”

“What? It’s just a power outage. Are you that upset you can’t play your games online?”

“This isn’t about that!

“Leave your cousins alone and go read a book.”

 

Talking to Strangers on the Internet

When I was growing up and first got to use the internet, one of the biggest rules I was given was that I could not talk to strangers on the internet. Around that time, tales of child abductions, predators, and catfishing had started to gain prominence, so my parents’ concern makes sense. It made sense back then, too, because I wasn’t supposed to talk to real-life strangers, so why should I be able to talk to internet strangers?

The funny thing is, now there are entire platforms for talking to strangers. Randomly-paired video and/or text chat, Twitter, Imgur, Reddit, Facebook… Pretty much everywhere you can go to on the internet, it will have an endless stream of strangers you can talk to. Sometimes, you even wind up making friends. One of my closest friends in my freshman year of college was someone who was a friend of a friend of a friend, that I’d maybe seen in person once. In the entire time we talked and were close friends, we met in person once, when I was back from college for winter break and we wanted to be able to stop making jokes about either one of us being a fat old man in a fake mustache.

Hell, even most video games pair you with strangers these days and all the team-based ones require some degree of communication, even if you only ever use emotes/macros to ask for healing or to show off your character’s mighty muscles. Up until a couple of weeks ago, when I started getting more involved on Twitter, most of my interaction with strangers came from playing Overwatch. I’d queue up for a match by myself or with a friend and we’d get stuck on a team with random strangers. For the most part, communication with them stay in the realm of healing requests and indications that we need to group up.

Sometimes, though, people start using text chat. Sometimes, people even use the team-wide voice chat. While myself and the friend I usually queue up with don’t generally join the team voice chat unless the team asks us to, there have been a few times when we have and it went well. One time, we did so well with two other groups of two that we all teamed up to make a group of six and went on to win another four matches. Another time, one guy spent the whole match whining into the team chat about how no one was playing well or helping him and it created such a thoroughly toxic atmosphere that no one would work together.

Most of the time, it’s just normal chatter. People talk about what they’re going to do, call out enemy positions and maneuvers, we coordinate our movements, and trying to work together for a common goal before moving on and never talking to each other again. I’ve had mostly neutral experiences with team voice chat, but the negative ones stand out so much that I generally try to avoid it if I can.

Text chat has been the opposite. There have been a few negative experiences, including one lately that made the match so negative that people on my team started throwing the match, resulting in an embarrassing overtime loss to a team we should have beaten easily. For the most part, though, people are friendly and at least neutral if not positive. If you play as a part of a group, there’s a high chance of playing with other groups and sticking with them for a while, across several matches. As that happens, people start friendly conversations, congratulate each other on good places, and all report/shout-down the one asshole trying to ruin everyone’s good time. Then you inevitably wind up fighting against a long-time ally and tears are shed on both sides as you ruthlessly exploit your experiences with each other to try to beat each other.

Good times.

I always kind of marvel at the casual nature of human connection via video games. You can meet someone new, bond over your shared enjoyment of a game, and then part ways without ever expecting to meet or talk again. If you do, that’s great! If not, then you’ve lost nothing. Or have you? It is so easy to connect over the internet, but we’re still so guarded with most of our personal information. Games all use usernames, most social media allows the restriction of personal information so only friends can see it, and most people who know anything about internet/identity safety recommend keeping most personal information completely private.

This attitude (which is still entirely sensible because the people who want to exploit personal information are ruthless and entirely too common) keeps us from connecting with friendly strangers. We don’t even share our names. We keep ourselves hidden behind the masks of our characters and our usernames. We connect with people, make friends, and them go our separate ways. It always makes me kind of sad when it happens, even if I’m not really willing to be the one to try to break the pattern. For the most part, anyway. I use my real name here, and on my Twitter. Those aren’t terribly brave, though, since most people also do that.