This review is going to get.. Complicated.
TLDR: This is a fun, fast-paced speculative fiction novel that expertly explores modern-day’s media obsession and the price of fame. Not without its faults, I’d happily recommend this book to lovers of the internet age.
Book: An Absolutely Remarkable Thing
Author: Hank Green
Release Date: September 25, 2018
An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is the story of April May, a 23-year-old bisexual woman living in New York City, just trying to get by at a startup. Very peak millennial. One night she’s walking home when she comes across of giant metal statue, a kind of samurai robot. Rather than just blowing it off as just another weird NYC thing, she calls up her friend Andy to document her discovery. They film a video and don’t give what April dubs Carl another thought. But over night (literally), the mysterious Carls around the world are thrust into the spotlight, bring April with them. The story takes off from there.
Narrator: Kristen Sieh and Hank Green
Length: ~9 hours
Listening speed: 1.75x
It really shouldn’t be this way. I should be able to just say what I liked and didn’t like about this book and that be that. But given this book and its author comes with a lot of baggage (good and bad), my thoughts quickly started spiraling in a mess of “The critiques are likely going to be unfair given the fandom. The raves are likely going to be unfair given the fandom. Can I trust big names who like it? Can I trust my gut feelings?” This is just a review; it shouldn’t be this complex.
But it is. After devouring this book in less than 36 hours, I thought, “OK I really liked this. But I know my biases, so let’s see what the critics have to say.” So what follows is my attempt to detail my own thoughts while also acknowledging why others might disagree.
Those looking for hard science fiction won’t find it in this first book (there will be a sequel). In fact, we get very little explanation about any of the speculative parts of this story. I imagine these will get fleshed out in the second book. But, while some have complained about this aspect by saying “this felt like a prequel or a preface to the real story,” I think those critics want this story to be something that it’s not. It’s not a traditional “first-contact” story.
It’s a contemporary with the dose of the speculative. And in that way, the worldbuilding relies on your understanding of our current culture climate. This story is very much rooted in the modern day. In the end, it will mean this will be dated (hopefully) quickly. But I don’t dock the book for that. Some of the best modern classics act as time capsules, glimpses back in time to a culture not our own. Time will tell.
As I hinted at in synopsis, April May is ~peak~ millennial. She’s a person I know well without ever having known. She has a mish-mash of “cool girl” character traits, like being petite and brash and being lousy at relationships. She’d be a manic pixie dream girl if this wasn’t her story, if she wasn’t driving her own life and had her own motivations. She makes bad or calculating decisions, which will either make you say “IT ME” or absolutely hate her. And as the story goes on, you have to start reevaluating what you think of what she has become.
The story being what it is, one about fame and internet culture, it makes sense that we don’t see a lot of the other characters, or at least not outside the context of April’s narrowly focused interactions with them. April forgets her own girlfriend, so the story does too.
One of the debates around this book was whether it would be YA or adult. It’s really both/neither. The language is young, in the way that internet speak often feels young regardless of the age of the person behind the keyboard. But it’s also not traditional YA as the characters and topics aren’t about teenagers.
The subtext (turned monologuing text-text) is where this book wins the most points with me. Rather than examining the themes common to sci-fi (war, the future, what it means to be human, how humans react to things out of their realm of experience etc.), this remains rooted in the modern day. It looks at media obsession and the downsides of fame and authenticity. And there are so many points of this book that hit home for someone like me, who spends both working hours and off hours on the internet and consuming media.
[Side note: I have to talk about how this story looks at the news media. While this is one of the more nuanced takes I’ve read in a while, that is an extremely low bar to jump over. This book doesn’t do the “equates one news channel to mean all news” or the “just out for views and nothing else” stereotypes, it still only focuses on cable news as “the media.” No. 1: This doesn’t ring true when your readers are a bunch of cord-cutters. No. 2: This doesn’t take into account the vast majority of journalists who aren’t TV anchors. This former newspaper gal is forever annoyed. End rant]
Saying that, I have to think critically about how it explores these things. At times it is heavy-handed in its morals and what it’s trying to say. When Only Human, the last book of the Themis Files did this, I was so annoyed that I docked the book 2 whole stars. But somehow it just works better in this book? Maybe. That is likely going to be personal preference whether that lack of subtlety bothers you.