UK Publisher: Trapeze
Genre: Science Fiction, YA, coming-of-age
IF YOU CAME ACROSS AN ABSOLUTELY REMARKABLE THING
AT 3 A.M. IN NEW YORK CITY . . .
WOULD YOU KEEP WALKING?
OR DO THE ONE THING THAT WOULD CHANGE YOUR LIFE FOREVER?
The Carls just appeared . . .
While roaming the streets of New York City at 3 a.m., twenty-three-year-old April May stumbles across a giant sculpture she calls Carl. Delighted by its appearance – like a ten-foot-tall Transformer wearing a suit of samurai armour – 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.
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 centre of an 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 . . .
I’ve heard of the Green brothers – it’s hard not to have – but despite being aware of their youtube channel and John Green’s mass of books and adaptations of his books, and criticisms of both the books and the adaptations of his books, my relationship had been distant. I had never actively sought out either of them, although nor had I actively avoided them either. They were a cultural touchpoint that I could understand references to, but nothing more. Hank Green’s first book came out last year. You may remember me referencing it in the post In Defence of Bad Books – it’s a sci-fi book that played down the sci-fi in the marketing, instead trying to draw in fans of literary fiction. This seems a shame, because it’s a book about giant space robots, and SFF fans LOVE giant space robots.
This book started well, seemed easy enough to get into even if I wasn’t 100% sold on April to begin with, but by about 30% of the way in I began to actively loathe her. She was a terrible person. And despite the book being styled as a retroactive look, with regrets, at the events which unfolded, she still came across as a terrible person. The bits she acknowledged as bad seemed that she wasn’t actually all that sorry about, and those were only a tiny tiny percentage of all the other awful stuff that just made up her character and her story. Despite continually going on about trying to claim equal credit for the discovery of Carl and everything, she actually did nothing and sailed through to glory – she found the robot, but it was her friend’s video equipment and editing skills which got the message out there. She noticed a pattern happening, but she didn’t solve it – instead she got someone else to do it. She still claimed credit for the discovery, for the solution. At no point does she acknowledge that, or the fact that she pushes forward her own celebrity without considering her co-stars.
Most of this book isn’t about the robot though, or the science. It is an examination of the nature of fame, her addiction to fame, but mostly of just how great she is doing and how famous she gets, so we know how important she is. At one point April lists the different tiers of fame as she sees them, and then assesses where she sits on it. Whilst she alludes to how “gross” her behaviour is at times, but there’s no real further examination as to why it’s bad or even why she did it – aside from a few offhand mentions of how she needs to be loved and only the love of a crowd will be enough because she has a loving and supportive family, and a loving girlfriend, but apparently that’s not good enough? So she becomes obsessed with the faceless mob of her supporters. Also there were brief, almost perfunctory comments on how bizarre her behaviour was, followed by lengthy discussions on how great the outcome was or how proud she is of it. It doesn’t fit.
On Hank Green’s website, he describes the book as being about a group of friends who accidentally become the most important people in the world. I read the book and honestly thought it was about April and her hubris. I wouldn’t have recognised the book was about any of the other characters. They’re all props, almost, and get no development compared to April. This could be Harry Potter Syndrome, in that she’s so self-involved that she just doesn’t notice the people around her – which at one point she acknowledges – but in Harry Potter the background characters still did get developed. Harry was oblivious but the reader wasn’t. Not so here.
I can see that perhaps Green’s intention with this novel is less to explore the actual sci-fi elements of a potential space robot invasion, but rather look at the human elements both on a societal and individual level. I think his approach to it didn’t quite work for me, because I found April too… smug and self-involved. I’ll be honest, by the time she started assuming I didn’t know anything about the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, she would have struggled to do right by me anyway, and after that passage I found her insufferable and patronising.
I’ve seen other media attempt to do similar things. In another lifetime, I reviewed anime and manga, and Dance in the Vampire Bund did a really great job of dealing with the revelation that vampires were real, the societal implications that had looking at the politics and social aspects both – they’d amassed huge amounts of wealth because they were immortal, they’d attained positions of political power, or had senior figures in business and government in their pockets. But also there were the factions of civilians, pro-vampire and anti-vampire, and the tensions between them. Unfortunately, I couldn’t watch too much of it because it also decided to use vampire immortality as a way to excuse sexualising what appeared to be a young girl, but the first episode or two was spot on.
Looking at this sort of phenomenon on a personal level, Colossal with Anne Hathaway came out a few years back and seemed to have slipped under most people’s radars, but it is really great. A party girl in denial about being an alcoholic moves back to her home town, but discovers that when she blunders across a playground at a specific time each day after a bender, a giant monster starts rampaging around Seoul on the other side of the world. After a while she realises the monster is her and has to face her personal demons and deal with what this means for her relationships.
For me, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing didn’t set itself apart from these, and it’s tricky to love a book when you loathe the narrator.
- Theoretically about a giant space robot, but it might as well just be entitled April May is an Awful Person.
- I suppose my issue lies in the fact that the Carls are almost entirely passive through the whole book, because the focus of the plot is April and her life, but… couldn’t we have had that with the Carls doing something? Or a bit more active rather than reactive plot progression?
- I say this being unfamiliar with John Green’s work, which I get the impression is very tonally similar to Hank’s – personal stories, accessible literary fiction. If you like John Green, you’ll like this I expect. If you are not into hard SFF, this is probably for you.
Rating: 2/5 – In the long run, you like what you like. This wasn’t for me, but other people might really enjoy it.