"When the rhetoric is so inflammatory, so enraged, it is not surprising that some people would work together to take matters into their own misguided hands."
An Absolutely Remarkable Thing came out in 2018, but DAMN if it isn't the most current, relevant thing I have ever read.
April May notices a giant statue or sculpture of some sort of robot while on the way home at 3am from her soul-sucking start-up job. It seemingly showed up out of nowhere, and it's kind of cool, so she orders her friend Andy to show up with his camera, and they make a YouTube video about it. In it, she "interviews" the robot, naming it Carl.
When she wakes up the next morning, she discovers that their video of Carl has gone completely viral... because apparently, over 60 other Carls had shown up out of nowhere all around the world. Suddenly, April is thrust into the limelight as the Carl representative, and as the situation gets more bizarre, April finds herself at the center of, well, everything.
That's the premise of the novel, but it absolutely does not do justice to the complexity, the coolness, the sheer genius that is Hank Green's commentary on the internet, social media, fame, and how all those things influence both the one who is the content creator as well as their audience.
Hank Green is, of course, uniquely poised to be able to comment on such things, as one of the vlogbrothers on YouTube. (The other vlogbrother, John Green, is already well known in the book world, of course.) He's "the science-y one," between the two, so it's not surprising that there's a lot of science and math and stuff in this book, and I love how they all turn the story into a bit of a mystery, as opposed to purely a story about the rise and fall of a suddenly famous person.
We've seen those stories, and a lot of them follow pretty predictable character arcs: protagonist gets plucked out of obscurity, fame goes to their head, they experience a downfall, and then (depending on the tone of the story) they either redeem themselves or they spiral off into the darkness, a cautionary tale about the consequences of fame and power.
AART manages to include these elements, but positions April May much more complexly--probably not surprising, considering how the Green brothers' video production company is actually called Complexly, which comes from a speech John Green had made about imagining others complexly.
Note: if you think it's weird that I keep pulling in information about the Green brothers' work to talk about this novel, just remember that Hank Green IS an content creator on the internet, and the premise of this book is about the internet and content creation, so... there's a solid amount of commentary here, from a position of knowledge and experience.
April is sometimes a jerk. She sometimes (often?) makes selfish decisions. She is enticed by the idea of people caring about her opinions, and she loves seeing her engagement numbers climb. And as her platform grows in size, she finds herself becoming more and more of a product or a brand, not just to her audience but also to herself, and even in the direst or most awkward of situations, the urge to tweet or vlog or share SOMETHING with her followers starts to become more and more of a priority, even more than maintaining her "real life" relationships.
That's not something that we've all experienced, but I think the vast majority of us who regularly use the social internet can relate to on some level. (Like, why am I writing this review as a blog post for an unknown audience, when I could just as easily write these thoughts in a private notebook or doc file?) We like the validation we get when we see someone has "liked" our posts. We like engaging with commenters, even when they say something we don't like, because someone else out there took the time to acknowledge our existence. (For the record, I don't like engaging with negative comments.) Social media allows us to engage with other humans on a scale that we might never be able to reach "in person," unless we are famous--for example, I have a three-digit number of followers on my Instagram account (it's my personal account, not a "brand" or anything), and the interactions I get there FAR outnumber the amount of people I could ever personally call, email, or talk to on any given day.
So... April. She becomes one of the most famous people in the world, possibly, and it's not just because of the viral video, but because of her decisions that come after. It's made pointedly clear that while she lucked into the initial attention, she becomes FAMOUS because she worked to stay that way, and I thought this was such an interesting glimpse "behind the scenes" of being internet-famous, because the narrative we'd all like to believe about Instagrammers, YouTubers, bloggers, etc., is that they just have this sort of natural talent and they've managed to win over their hundreds of thousands (or even millions) of followers simply by turning a camera or a laptop on, but that's hardly the case. I don't mean to imply that they didn't work hard for their fame, because they absolutely do, but I think it would be naive to think that there isn't a huge ENGINE happening behind them. At a certain point, content creators are able to hire agents, assistants, editors, etc., and depending on their area of expertise, they are also sent PR materials to review or they generate enough income from their videos to purchase products as a part of their work expenses. (Hello, one of my other hobbies is beauty blogging, and no, I don't get free stuff, but I see other people receive it all the time. And, actually, even in the book blogging world, readers get put on ARC lists and stuff, or we request books through Netgalley and such.)
All this to say, this is a story about April and her decisions. And we see her decisions have increasingly far-reaching consequences as we learn more about the Carls and their bizarre effect on the world. (Not to spoil anything, but let's just say that the President of the US is a character in this novel, and is a woman. Bless, Hank!)
However, this is also a story about people, in the world. And they are their own entities. It's as if the main characters in this book should be listed as: April, Andy, Maya, Miranda, Robin, and... the internet-consuming public. And of course, there are factions: there are the people who, like April, are curious about the Carls and want to solve the mysteries and see this as an opportunity for humanity to come together and do something positive, and there are the people who are afraid of the threat that the Carls might pose, and sow fear on the internet via conspiracy theories. And (mild spoiler), from the quote I pulled to begin this post, this fear leads to coordinated acts of violence.
Thus, my comment on the timeliness and eerie prescience of this novel. I'm writing this post on January 26, 2021, and if you're reading this somewhere in the distant future, please look up the events of January 6, 2021, and all the thinkpieces examining how the US reached such a point. Of course, maybe it's not SO eerie. I'm not sure when Hank Green started writing this book, but I think that, if you've been paying attention to American politics for the last decade, which I know Hank Green has been, you probably could've seen January 6th happening from a mile away. Maybe you might say it was in a way inevitable.
Aside from all the social commentary (which is insightful and educational without being preachy), the actual plot itself was fascinating and fun. If you like stories with clues, quests, and reveals, you will like this one. The other characters, some of whom I named above, are interesting and also complex, and part of me feels like I would happily read novels featuring each of them.
Side note: because I've been a vlogbrothers fan for a while, I actually had a hard time starting this book because I was reading it with Hank Green's voice in my head. And of course, that just did NOT work out well, so my solution was to listen to it on audiobook, and that made a world of difference. The narrator is spectacular, and once I was far enough into the book to have internalized her voice as April's, I was finally able to read the book as text on a page. However, I should note that a lot of the social commentary parts really did come across to me as "Hank Green's social commentary as read by April," as opposed to "April's social commentary," but that didn't really bother me.
Alas, AART is part 1 of a duology, so I need to go read the second one before I can comment on the story arc as a whole. It also ended on a bit of a cliffhanger, so I am definitely eager to continue the story.
I gave An Absolutely Remarkable Thing five stars, because... it truly was what the title suggests.