The Carls just appeared. Roaming through New York City at three a.m., twenty-three-year-old April May stumbles across a giant sculpture. Delighted by its appearance and craftsmanship – like a ten-foot-tall Transformer wearing a suit of samurai armour – April and her best friend Andy make a video with it, which Andy uploads to YouTube. The next day April wakes up to a viral video and a new life. News quickly spreads that there are Carls in dozens of cities around the world – from Beijing to Buenos Aires – and April, as their first documentarian, finds herself at the centre of an intense international media spotlight.
Seizing the opportunity to make her mark on the world, April now has to deal with the consequences her new particular brand of fame has on her relationships, her safety and her own identity. And all eyes are on April to figure out not just what the Carl’s are, but what they want from us.
I am predisposed to resent people who have what I perceive to be a disproportionate amount of talent. I almost want to dislike their creations because it seems deeply unfair to me for one person to have so much ability in multiple different areas when I am flailing in all of them. Hank Green is one such person. One half of the Vlog Brothers in addition to like a thousand other things, Hank is one of those people I am inclined to blame for my personal failings because he took all the talent before I had a chance to grab a piece. But he is also an adorable man I think it is actually impossible to dislike, so when I heard he was releasing a novel (an intimidating endeavour, I imagine, when your brother is one of the most popular authors currently publishing work), despite his unfairly large piece of the talent pie, I wanted the best for him. In projecting my own imagined inadequacy onto him, I forgot for a moment that Hank Green is good at everything.
An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, Hank Green’s debut novel, is really fucking good. A book about Queen-loving aliens that isn’t really about Queen-loving aliens at all; it dissects the dehumanising effect of fame (by others and ourselves), how the power that comes with fame can be used and abused, how we use rhetoric to progress our agenda and how that rhetoric can spin out of control.
Hank Green has written a novel for 2018 – as culturally relevant as it is resonant with the polarising politics of today. When the Carls arrive, April May unexpectedly finds herself at the centre of the news cycle of aliens making first contact with earth – by accidentally making first contact with them. She’d never much thought about fame before – she was barely even on social media – but once in the eye of the media storm she puts all of her energy into remaining there. In April May’s journey from regular Joe to tier five fame we really see the corrupting potential of that fame, as April May even starts to see herself less as a person than a brand. I suppose the work of building your own identity is less when you let everyone else define it for you, and once April May has that and the relevance and attention that comes with it she is utterly unable to let go – at the sacrifice of pretty much everything else in her life.
But the Carls are also the first contact between aliens and Earth and though it may not always seem that way from her perspective, the story is much bigger than April May herself. As time goes on and the Carls remain (doing, it is important to note, nothing at all, for the most part), the world seems to split into two camps. Those who agree with April May, that the Carls are a force for good and promoting togetherness – and those who look at the Carls and see a threat. Led by right-wing media pundit Peter Petrawicki, this group comes to be known as The Defenders (as in, of Earth) from what they perceive to be the alien threat. As the novel progresses the politics of fear espoused by Petrawicki and his Defenders grows, slowly becoming ever more toxic and out of control. Even as a reader seeing the story firmly from April May’s perspective, you are not immune to their rhetoric. For a lot of the novel, the Carls aren’t really doing anything definitely good or bad – they simply exist in a way that was heretofore impossible. But it is in the absence of action that both factions project ideals onto them, and as they fail to live up to either they have, throughout, the potential to be both. Though I can’t get behind the extremism to which The Defenders descend as the book goes on the whole time I couldn’t help but wonder if they had a point.
An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is a novel about a special snowflake – April May, the first human girl to make contact with aliens – that resists that narrative in a really interesting way. As the novel progresses, April May starts asking herself what the Carls saw in her in the first place. What made her so special? Why did they choose her? When she finally has the opportunity to ask the question, the Carls don’t respond – because, I think, there isn’t an answer. An Absolutely Remarkable Thing isn’t about a special girl seeing her specialness finally recognised – it is the opposite. April May is a girl desperate to feel special and worthy of something and so willing to believe in that narrative when it arises – and there is really nothing much more normal than that. Even when there are aliens involved.
There is so much more I could write about this book. I haven’t even touched on April May’s relationships, particularly with her girlfriend, Maya, and how her interactions display a deep and relatable level of insecurity she does a really bad job of hiding. I haven’t talked yet about her monstrous agent, and how certain at times in this book you wonder whether April May stands for her actual beliefs, or simply the stance that gets the most likes on Twitter. But we don’t have all day.
An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green is just that (an absolutely remarkable thing) – this book is packed with questions, compassion and a pacey sci-fi story I will absolutely return to in the future.
Yep. Hank Green is good at everything.