The following article contains mild spoilers for the entirety of ‘An Absolutely Remarkable Thing’ by Hank Green
What if you woke up one day to find out that you’re now the most-watched person in the history of the internet? And what if that content was a video of you introducing an otherworldly, mysterious, robot sculpture that you found at 3 AM in New York City and dubbed ‘Carl’?
In Hank Green’s debut novel, protagonist April May–a fresh-out-of-college designer–is living a largely unremarkable life when she’s confronted by that bizarre experience. As her world is turned upside down, she becomes the symbol for humanity’s connection with what seems like an alien force. Along the way, she builds an unprecedentedly large internet following, leading the faction which supports cooperation with the Carls.
Reducing this story to a sci-fi trope, though, would be doing it a disservice. An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is, at its core, a study of the ability of fame to strip away our humanity and make addicts of those cursed with it. You see over the course of the first-person narrative the corrosion of the narrator’s identity: how, in desperately aspiring to live up to her carefully-cultivated internet persona, she becomes her carefully-cultivated internet persona. The emergence of the Carls is also used as a lens with which to understand the current moment in culture and politics. As the book points out, the Carls are the perfect blank slate on which the artifices of the present culture war can be projected, and with which new tensions can be manafactuared in toxic spaces online.
That is, of course, if Green’s lens is the one through which you wish to be presented this analysis of society in the twenty-first century. As a renowned vlogger, online educator and entrepreneur, he’s experienced some degree of the kind of internet fame the narrator experiences in the book–and while he and April aren’t the same, there are times when the voices of the narrator and the author appear to merge. When April lists what she sees as the ‘5 tiers of fame’, or says that ‘pundits don’t want to talk about what’s happened; they want to use what’s happened to talk about the same things they talk about every day’, the book seems to drift from the narrative to being closer to a script for one of Green’s YouTube videos. This heavy-handed delivery of his personal perspective on the internet doesn’t necessarily detract from the book. It does, however, make clear that the story wishes to inform its readers in a particular way.A video by Hank Green from two years before this book was published, echoing many of the same ideas about online culture, politics, and meaning.
But that’s precisely what makes it so special. Ultimately, its true villain isn’t Carl, or the violent extremists and political pundits who emerge from the culture war. It’s fame itself.
It’s abundantly clear that Green’s trying to do craft something more than an alien invasion tale. And he doesn’t seem interested in directly participating in the culture war as it exists today. Fundamentally, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is a reminder of the ability of democratised access to technology to amplify humanity: to empower our greatest capabilities to inspire justice, change, and communitybuilding; and to feed our worst proclivities towards provoking fear, tribalism, and violence.
Still, it would be hard to argue that it is a literary masterpiece or a seminal political commentary. And, perhaps in fear of alienating the general audience that previous ‘YouTuber books’ have attracted, Green shies away from providing much depth to the science fiction roots of the story, in a way that would leave fans of the genre disappointed.
But in pulling the best elements from both of the genres it steps into, this is surely a compelling narrative for whoever may be interested in what it means to be human in the age of the internet. And as the line between the real and online worlds becomes increasingly blurred, Green seems to think that should be everyone.