Disclaimer: As my students know, I’ve had a crush on Hank Green for years. I will try to not let this bias my review.
In the middle of the night when April May, a graphic designer, is on her way home from work in Manhattan, she’s the first person to notice a huge new statue on the sidewalk. It’s totally out of place, but she appreciates its artistry, so she calls her friend Andy and asks him to help her make a video about the statue (which she names Carl). When Andy uploads it to YouTube, it goes viral. When other Carls are discovered in other major world cities, April, the first person to report on the Carls, becomes famous and begins to relish her role as their spokesperson. Her fame opens many doors but also causes problems and, eventually, becomes dangerous.
An Absolutely Remarkable Thing (2018) is a delightful science fiction story with diverse characters and a fun and clever mystery to solve. The entire world is involved in trying to find clues and piece them together to figure out what the Carls want from us. On the surface, the book appears to be about our relationship with these aliens, but it’s really about our relationships with each other.
As April’s fame and social media stats rise, April becomes increasingly concerned about her brand and increasingly less likeable to the people who loved her before she was famous. By the end of the book, many readers may find themselves turning on a protagonist they initially liked. Green is asking us to think about fame and its consequences, and perhaps specifically the type of fame driven by social media and platforms such as YouTube. Related to this, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing asks us to think about discourse in our current political climate and to consider how we’ve become so polarized and where extremism comes from.
I can’t help but wonder if some of April’s story is autobiographical for Green, a vlogger who became famous (along with his brother, The Fault in our Stars author John Green) on YouTube and used this fame to expand to other media including music and, now with this debut novel, literature.
I mentioned earlier that I love Hank Green’s science videos, especially SciShow and Crash Course. I love his sense of humor and his precise manner of speaking. I don’t think it’s my imagination that I could hear him while reading An Absolutely Remarkable Thing. The prose sounds like him and, of course, the same sense of humor is there. I really liked this aspect of the novel.
I listened to the audiobook version produced by Penguin Audio and narrated by Kristen Sieh. This was the first time I’ve listened to her and I was extremely impressed. She was perfectly cast and, I don’t know if she listened to a bunch of Hank Green’s videos before narrating his first novel, but she somehow actually sounded like him (the speech patterns, not the voice, of course). This is an excellent audiobook that I highly recommend. It’s 9.5 hours long. Oh, and Hank narrates the last chapter, which is adorable.
Sibling rivalry is the worst at the best of times, but when you are the brother of arguably the most successful YA author in the world, it’s got to get pretty tough. It is difficult to write a review of Hank Green‘s debut novel, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, without mentioning his brother John Green (that would’ve been one almighty elephant in the room). But there’s no denying the debut author has chutzpah: not only is he following in his brother’s footsteps, but he is even inhabiting the same genre. Yet that is where the similarities end. An Absolutely Remarkable Thing will take readers on an unexpected and original journey, one that is absolutely remarkable, and one they absolutely won’t have seen coming.
April May is walking home late one night in New York. She finds a mysterious statue right in the heart of Manhattan, and calls her best friend Andy to come and film it. They post a video on YouTube (and somewhat fittingly: Hank Green is, of course, one half of the YouTube channel Vlogbrothers), only to find that it has gone viral the next morning: April has unwittingly become an overnight celebrity.
The next day, it transpires that these mysterious statues have popped up in sixty-four major cities all over the world. When April May teams up with a scientist, it quickly becomes apparent that these statues possess qualities that no known materials on Planet Earth have. There is no doubt that these Transformer-like sculptures (dubbed “Carls” by April May), are not from this world.
There are a few current YA clichés that Green couldn’t seem to resist, such as April May being quirky in that Manic Pixie kind of way. The offbeat first-person narration is something YA readers will be familiar with, so in terms of voice, there is nothing groundbreaking going on here. Green also deals with a variety of diversity issues that are increasingly common in SFF today. (The next stage is to ensure that the publishing industry is actually as diverse as the stories being told.)*
But the story itself is pretty original. Green explores current issues — social media, the pitfalls of fame, celebrity — through the lens of Science Fiction, which is really the definition of what Science Fiction is meant to do. The relevance of these topics for a modern teen audience also make this book the perfect choice for those who wouldn’t normally pick up a SF book about aliens or robots. And there’s no denying it’s incredibly readable; why else is that first-person oddball voice such a popular choice for a YA audience?
An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is a funny, contemporary, easily-digestible exploration of what it means to be human in an age where social media dictates so much of what we do. Green uses a fairly ordinary Science Fiction trope to make a YA story extraordinary, and despite the shoes he had to fill, he has done a remarkable job.
*This paragraph was edited in response to a helpful reader’s comment.