We’ve all done it. We’ve all seen something extraordinary, glanced at it briefly, and then continued on toward our current destination, wherever that may be. We may be in a hurry, we may not. We may be alone, with someone else, or part of a group. But, regardless of our circumstances, often when we are confronted with something unexpected, even if it is remarkable, we take a glance and then keep moving. In Hank Green’s debut novel, the story opens with a young woman coming across something amazing, and she ALMOST walks by after giving it only a cursory glance. But she chides herself for that indifference, turns around and begins to look, really look, at what she’s discovered. And with that decision, she begins a journey that will change the world.
What April May finds at 2:45 a.m., near the corner of East 23rd Street and Lexington Avenue, in New York City is astonishing. It is a ten foot tall sculpture of a Transformer-like robot in Samurai style armor. When she touches it, it feels odd and she is not quite able to determine the materials of which it is made. It is not quite warm, but not as cold as she expected on a cool evening. April calls Andy, a friend from art school, and he agrees to meet her and record a video for YouTube. April names the robot Carl and interviews it. Andy edits the interview and posts it on YouTube. When April wakes up the next morning, she is greeted by several surprises. The video she made with Andy is now a hit on YouTube. It has been viewed over a million times since being posted. Carl is not the only robot. There are more than 60 of them, and they appeared in major cities across the globe simultaneously. Because April and Andy’s video was the first posted, people all over the world are referring to the robots as Carl. The arrival of the Carls was not recorded anywhere (in spite of the cameras and security systems in place near their locations). April and Andy were the very first humans to notice and attempt to interact with them. And as the questions regarding their origins increase, it becomes increasingly clear that the Carls may be extraterrestrial in origin and April just made first contact with them.
In An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, Hank Green, a video-blogger and the younger brother of YA author John Green, crafts a tale that is simultaneously remarkably cynical and incredibly hopeful. He paints a scathing portrait of social media, its whims, vagaries, and ever increasing appetite for content (even in circumstances lacking in actual information). He illustrates the capriciousness of fame in our current culture and pulls back the curtain to show the industry in place to capitalize, while it can, on those who are, for a moment, famous, always putting their own potential gain ahead of all other concerns. And Green illustrates how that fame can be addictive to those who find themselves thrust into the social media maelstrom.
At the same time, Green’s protagonist, April, holds to a nearly impossibly positive outlook about the Carls, their potential reasons for appearing, and what their presence may mean for the planet. She isn’t a Pollyanna, but rather a smart, calculating young woman who uses snark as a defense mechanism and yet endeavors to hold on to her instinctual belief that whomever, or whatever, placed the Carls on Earth meant no harm, despite what is happening around her. She is a wonderful “every/anyone” thrust into something overwhelming, seemingly by chance, doing the best she can (which isn’t always quite enough). The ending is quite the cliff-hanger, but it appears to be the perfect set up for the sequel that Green is surely writing.
An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is a fascinating and enjoyable roller-coaster ride through a VERY near future, moral uncertainties, philosophical ponderings and quite possibly the most important questions anyone can ask: what kind of person do I want to be?