An Absolutely Remarkable Thing: It’s not about aliens, it’s about us

Reposting to include Ray’s new review.

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green science fiction book reviewsAn Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank GreenAn Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green

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.

Hank Green

Hank Green: Adorable, and so smart!

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.

~Kat Hooper


An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank GreenAn Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank GreenSibling 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.

~Ray McKenzie

*This paragraph was edited in response to a helpful reader’s comment.

Publication date: September 25, 2018. In his much-anticipated debut novel, Hank Green – co-creator of Crash Course, Vlogbrothers, and SciShow – spins a sweeping, cinematic tale about a young woman who becomes an overnight celebrity before realizing she’s part of something bigger, and stranger, than anyone could have possibly imagined. The Carls just appeared. Coming home from work at three a.m., 23-year-old April May stumbles across a giant sculpture. Delighted by its appearance and craftsmanship – like a 10-foot-tall Transformer wearing a suit of samurai armor – April and her 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 – everywhere from Beijing to Buenos Aires – and April, as their first documentarian, finds herself at the center of an intense international media spotlight. Now April has to deal with the pressure on her relationships, her identity, and her safety that this new position brings, all while being on the front lines of the quest to find out not just what the Carls are, but what they want from us. Compulsively entertaining and powerfully relevant, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing grapples with big themes, including how the social Internet is changing fame, rhetoric, and radicalization; how our culture deals with fear and uncertainty; and how vilification and adoration spring from the same dehumanization that follows a life in the public eye.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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RACHAEL "RAY" MCKENZIE, with us since December 2014, was weaned onto fantasy from a young age. She grew up watching Studio Ghibli movies and devoured C.S. Lewis’ CHRONICLES OF NARNIA not long after that (it was a great edition as well -- a humongous picture-filled volume). She then moved on to the likes of Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy and adored The Hobbit (this one she had on cassette -- those were the days). A couple of decades on, she is still a firm believer that YA and fantasy for children can be just as relevant and didactic as adult fantasy. Her firm favourites are the British greats: Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman, and she’s recently discovered Ben Aaronovitch too. Her tastes generally lean towards Urban Fantasy but basically anything with compelling characters has her vote.

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4 comments

  1. This looks like a fun and thoughtful read. Nice to see a positive Internet success story (the author) for a change!

  2. This sounds interesting, and I’m glad you enjoyed it after being a fan of Hank Green for so long!

  3. I’ve never read this particular book, but the language Ray uses in her review is jarring and offensive. I’m not sure I know it means to be “ostentatiously bi-sexual”, and I have no idea how the race of the character’s partner has anything to do with a review of a book. Saying that including non-heteronormative sexualities or biracial relationships makes a book “too self-consciously woke” and “cliche” is to say that stories about those people don’t matter or shouldn’t be told, which is completely wrong. We need MORE texts about people who don’t fit within the “usual” experiences of whiteness and being young, not more people telling them that they shouldn’t be included in popular texts. Whether it was intended or not, the language used in that paragraph is dismissive and wrong and works to silence already silenced people. Did you ever consider that maybe a young bisexual in a biracial relationship was happy to see themselves represented in a book, for the first time in their life? I’m glad you think that identities that are different to yours should be called out and set aside as “too woke” for your tastes — absolutely disgusting language that should have never appeared here or anywhere else.

    • Thank you for letting me know that my wording was offensive. I was attempting to point out that the author was following the current YA trend of being “self-consciously woke” by writing protagonists who are very different from the author, but I can see that it didn’t come across well. It was never my intention to suggest that any voices be silenced. I am an advocate and a reader of all stories, especially the ones that aren’t heard enough! It would be better to say that I look forward to a day when YA authors and those who work in the publishing industry reflect the diversity we see in the world. (This is getting better, fortunately.) I have edited my review to try to get this across better

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