An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green asks you to take a good, hard look at how we assign fame. With visitors from robots!
Hank Green has a knack for unpacking the complexities of the world. Take a scroll through the content he’s produced for the web over the last decade and you’ll learn a little bit about everything from whether cold showers improve your health on SciShow to why the “D” in Disney is so weird over on Vlogbrothers.
Sometimes twisted tales of negotiations and scientific breakthroughs emerge, other times you’re simply left to ponder the vastness of this world we inhabit.
An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is an new medium for Hank Green. A full-fledged novel with a spine and amazing end pages and an acknowledgements section. But what sits on those pages in the middle still holds onto that bit of what makes Hank, well, Hank.
April May, the “author” of what readers are given, encounters what she originally assumes is an artist’s installation — something she feels needs to be seen. How do you give something recognition where others simply pass it by? Put it on the internet.
This is a book that almost demands discussion. An Absolutely Remarkable Thing refers not only to the event that sets the book in motion, but the whirlwind of unanticipated fame that exists more and more frequently across the internet. It makes you reflect on not only the image you craft for yourself, but how you react to what others have crafted for you.
It’s a reading experience that will not leave you any time soon.
Luckily, Hank Green had a bit of time to share with Hypable to help unpack An Absolutely Remarkable Thing. There are very minor spoilers for the plot of the novel, but the discussion around the larger themes might be best left for after you turn the final page.
Check out our full discussion with Hank Green below!
Reading this I felt that I was getting a lot of Hank Green in the writing and I didn’t know what that would be and I have to say that the question that kept coming to mind was what did Hank Green discover about Hank Green by writing April May?
I mean, that’s great. That’s great. This is a very good question. I haven’t even thought… because I know that books change people. I’ve been changed by books. And the idea that that might be something that I could do is really sort of a beautiful thought to me.
I didn’t realize how much a book could change an author. And meditating on themes for years, it makes sense. But I think that there are a number of things.
I think this changed my perspective on what I wanted, a lot. I think that through the process of this book, the act of seeking fame is the act of seeking dehumanization. You want people to think that you are not just a person. That is what fame is. And that made me be like, “Oh that is not good. I don’t want that. And I don’t want that for my friends and we need to talk about this fast.”
I thought the dehumanization that comes along with fame was just a negative consequence of it. But it is the thing that people are actually trying to get. And it was a thing, in some ways, that I was trying to get. I want people to have a simple positive perspective on me and that is dehumanization.
The little story of the brand of Hank Green is, intrinsically, I am trying to draw a circle and that circle does not include things that are me. It is the reason why we read US Weekly. Like, ‘OMG, Rhianna walked her dog!’ Yeah okay, Rhianna has a dog, it’s not that weird, she’s a person.
It’s almost like the whole point of fame is to get you to a place where you get surprised that people have bodily functions. And I don’t want that. So, I’m going to talk about my poops, my farts, my peeing as much as I can on the internet and in the podcast so that doesn’t happen. So that is one thing among many.
Another big one is that I got a lot more sympathetic to other people who have my job who I feel like don’t do it the right way. Who I felt like, “Oh, you need to do it the right way.” I got a lot more sympathetic I kind of got to experience it through another person’s eyes. April is different from me. And so I was able to understand mistakes I think I’ve seen other people make by experiencing them through her mistakes.
One section of the book that I really want to talk about is the moment where April tweets after the events of July 13.
I think it’s the juxtaposition of her public message to the world as the “April May brand” and her interpersonal reflection on what she is putting out to the world, where there is a turning point on the larger commentary on fame where you can choose to make something bigger than yourself out of what you’ve been given.
I think that ultimately April sees herself as this tool. Eventually, she gets to this point where she stops seeing herself as ‘I am person who is suffering from injustices but also been given lots of advantages’ and she starts to see herself as ‘all of that is inconsequential, relationships are inconsequential, I am a tool with a huge problem that I need to fix and I have a unique set of tools to fix a problem and if I am not using them to do it and in that way myself being the tool then I am letting the world down and leading the world down a path to destruction.’
This isn’t a Buffy the Vampire Slayer save the world situation, but it is in April’s head. She is terrified that the world is going to be so afraid, that they are going to lead themselves into isolation and skepticism and suspicion of each other, into loneliness, and it is going to literally end up being the demise of our species.
And whether that’s rational or not, I don’t think it is, but April does because she is caught up in this moment and she is only seeing it from her one perspective. She is only imagining her one self as a wielder of power, where there are many of hundreds of thousands of us doing that on the internet every day.
But she feels herself to be so important and it is signaled by society that she is so important that she can’t let go of that in those moments. I don’t think there is anything necessarily wrong with that she knows that she has to say something she doesn’t believe because it is for the best and like I think that we’ve all been there, I definitely have.
Absolutely. Especially in a time where there isn’t a right thing to say, but something has to be said and there is no time to process and everything moves so quickly.
And how quickly news spreads, how quickly news turns, that is captured so well in this book. So going off of that, I wanted to talk about the audience that was in mind. It’s an adult book and there is just so much happening with internet culture that I think anyone who picks this up is going to be familiar with most of aspects of it in some capacity.
I didn’t think that much about audience, which is a little weird for me. And I think part of that might be because I’ve become so familiar with my audience, particularly the Vlogbrothers audience, that I guess I was just imagining that.
I didn’t feel the need to question the audience the way I do if I I’m giving a talk and I need to know who these people are. Also, I did want it to be super open. There’s no like super graphic sex scenes, there’s even a trigger warning before violent moments, even though I don’t know if I would have done that, but I know April would have.
[April] ostensibly in this universe, she wrote the book not me.
I really want it to be, in addition to the fun, good story, and I hope it is a fun, good story, I really like that part of it, I hope people come out of it having some more complicated ideas about notoriety and power and fame and the relationships we all have with each other in this world where there are no barriers anymore.
It used to be, and it is still the case for Brad Pitt-level famous people, he’s not going to see a tweet I tweet at him. You might feel that I am as big of a deal, or April is, or your favorite internet person is as big of a deal or bigger than Brad Pitt to you. But they probably make $45,000 a year and are just trying to make it work and read every single one of their tweets because they need every single piece of feedback they can get. And because also they have maybe a little bit of need for validation and being valued by the world because otherwise why would they be going through this?
You can have a really big effect on them. It doesn’t feel like it because that’s not how it’s supposed to work.
So, we have to have new systems for imagining these things and whether that’s just every one of us hanging out on Twitter or actually knowing some people who are going through this stuff, whether you’re a friend or a family member or a therapist.
Fame is just fractured to the point where there are so many people experiencing some level of notoriety, some level of being in the pubic eye and then if we treat all those people the same way we’ve been treating famous people for the last 30 years, I think that we’re in for some trouble because it’s pretty abusive. And it’s exploitative.
The book does a great job of walking that line of saying, ‘The internet is not bad, but sometimes it can be.’ Our relationship with fame is what really needs the work and if we put in that work it’s a whole new world and it will allow the people who are experiencing their bubble of fame to realize the power they have and better control it.
That’s at least something I took away from the book and something that can open up all of these conversations or start thoughts about it. For example, ‘Oh, this isn’t just someone sitting in their living room filming a video for two hours a day.’ There’s more to it than that.
There are 22 other hours.
I’m glad that you felt that idea that, of course there are bad parts of the internet. But there are also good parts. Because I’ve become less unambiguously pro-Internet since 2014, for obvious reasons.
And you made a really great point that if we build the right tools, we’ll have a better space. But sometimes we see these things as they exist and we’re like, “Oh, well that’s how it exists and I’ll just interface with that.”
And, one, yes, you do have to live inside the world that exists, but two, it exists this way because this is how we are doing it. We can do it different ways. And that goes for how we treat famous people, but also how we treat each other and also how we share information and create content and think about politics and everything. I think we haven’t built all the tools yet.
There is a bit of world-building that went into this book. Can you discuss the process of creating the Carls and The Dream, the Wikipedia puzzles.
The Carls take very few actions in the book. And that to me is sort of the real, this is how good first contact stories work because if there was only one person on the world, they wouldn’t know that they were a person. Right? They wouldn’t understand themselves in the way that two people can.
We only have the one sentient species now, so we have no way to see ourselves. We tell these first contact stories I think in large part because it’s a lens with which to examine ourselves.
I wanted, despite the fact that they do take some actions, I wanted it to be very clear for a thinking person, that they have arrived in order just for us to look at ourselves. And that’s never explicitly said in the book, it’s a little bit hinted at and we never actually understand the motivations of the Carls for the most part. But you do get this sense that, like, oh, we need to look at ourselves now because there is something else.
We exist in contrast to [the Carls] and we get this picture this view of us, this lens through which we can imagine and view ourselves that we didn’t have before. And that’s why I think speculative fiction is so powerful. It’s giving us a chance to remove ourselves from the world that exists right now and that sort of let’s us feel a little bit better about reforming some ideas, reforming some values, changing our world view a little bit.
Even in those situations where the world-building is very minimal, I would be terrified to do more substantial world-building, I’ve tried to do it, failed, though I’m no saying I’m giving up.
And then when it comes the The Dream, and we’ll just leave it at that, for spoilers, creating that space was really fun to me. I don’t know if this is my style, I’m very new to this, but I feel like I intentionally drew a sketch and trust the reader to fill it in with things that they want to fill it in with.
And that’s also kind of true of the Carls. I don’t do too much physical description of them and happy to have people build the world in their brains because that’s the great thing about books.
I have a very distinct image of the Carls, just like I did with Hermione Granger when I was reading the books before the movie came out, you build that. And that now just took me back to the moment in the beginning of the book where April first encounters the Carl. The way you were just talking about them, reflecting a way for us to see what we are, [April] doesn’t feel anything when she touches it. It’s the perfect reflection of her touching it.
And so, trying to wrap my head around that, let’s move into my final question — what are you looking forward to or fearing most about the book getting into the hands of the world.
Honestly the thing I am looking forward to the most is not just people talking about the themes and the symbolism, it’s like I want to read some friggin’ fan theories. I don’t know if that’s going to happen…
Oh, I’m sure it will happen.
I love fan theories so much and I don’t know if this is uncouth or whatever, but the idea that someone might have a fan theory about my book is very cool. So I’m excited about that.
I would totally read some Carl fanfic. I am a big fan of fan culture and so that is really exciting to me. I think it works better with speculative worlds. And so that is my self-indulgent answer. And I don’t know if I can trust reality to live up to that hope, but I’m trying not to expect.