Review by Casey Lawrence
Of all the surprises in Hank Green’s highly anticipated debut novel, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, the protagonist’s bisexuality was one I would never have predicted. The New Adult sci-fi novel seamlessly incorporates protagonist April May’s queerness into an alternate universe where an HRC-like character is POTUS and an alien race has sent dozens of robots to earth to the tune of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now.” April, an art school graduate working for an app start-up in New York City, stumbles upon one of these robots in the middle of the night and, mistaking it for an art installation (or perhaps an ingenious marketing ploy for the next Transformers installment), films a funny YouTube video interviewing the creature she dubs “Carl.” April, her best friend Andy, and “New York Carl” become an overnight sensation, and while the book is ostensibly a First Contact narrative with elements of both hard and soft sci-fi, it really becomes about the social internet, fame, and the dangers of feeding the trolls.
As April’s notoriety grows and she is increasingly in demand for interviews as the person who first “discovered” the Carls, she is pressured by her publicist to frame herself as a lesbian, rather than bisexual, to make her more palatable to her growing audience. The biphobia of this moment is acknowledged and explored in a genuine way, which, in a book by straight/white/cis/ male Hank Green, is delightfully unexpected. April’s sexuality, rather than being treated as a novelty or a joke, is probably the least remarkable thing about her—and it’s treated as such! If I had to nitpick, there are a few things Green gets wrong; for example, April comes close to falling into the “slutty bisexual” stereotype of being attracted to nearly everyone in her age range, although these attractions frequently come across as stray thoughts and are rarely acted on.
Likewise, for someone so well-versed on the social internet (Green’s wildly successful YouTube channel vlogbrothers, started with brother John in 2007, has spawned numerous companies and side-projects, including the popular educational channel, SciShow), Green’s privileged position shines through when it comes to his portrayal of online harassment. As a woman on the internet (and a queer woman, no less!) April somehow manages to avoid any of the gendered harassment that a pretty, young woman cast suddenly into online stardom would inevitably receive. Despite nailing other issues—Green knows the ins and outs of the internet—the novel glosses over elements of internet culture that, even in a world with Madam President at the helm, would have made it even more difficult for April to adapt to going viral.
That being said, Hank Green does something in An Absolutely Remarkable Thing that in most novels would have readers running for the hills—he lets his protagonist make the wrong choice again and again. April’s missteps are frustrating, but they are what make her so engaging. Readers will love to hate April May as she self-sabotages her relationships with important allies, follows bad advice, and fumbles her way toward a greater understanding of what it means to be human in the digital age. Green translates real-world issues into the fantastic events of AART, such as when April posts a ranting retaliation video after being challenged by a radical conservative man proposing a drastically different course of action. Afterward, she thinks, “I had no idea of this then, but by engaging with him, I was affirming him and his wackos. Their ideas were getting more exposure through my larger audience, and I (and, of course, every news channel out there) was confirming the idea that there were two sides you could be on. It was a huge mistake, and also great for views.” Like a punch to the gut, this moment will resonate with contemporary readers everywhere.
Timely and topical, Green’s An Absolutely Remarkable Thing offers important social commentary wrapped up in the gift of a unique sci-fi plot. The added bonus of unexpected bisexual representation in an otherwise “mainstream” book is just icing; I’m excited to add April to my short (but ever-expanding) list of bisexual characters in mainstream media.
Casey Lawrence is a Canadian grad student studying English Literature in Dublin, Ireland. She is the author of two bi+ YA novels, Out of Order and Order in the Court, and the co-editor of 11/9: The Fall of American Democracy. Check out her YouTube channel RealIssuesRealLife and follow her on Twitter @myexplodingpen.