By Jason Garshfield
Whatever my criticisms of John Green, at least he is soulful, earnest, and respectful of the craft of writing. The same cannot be said of John’s brother, Hank Green, whose debut novel, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, is an odious work of propaganda through and through.
Now, before I go on, it is only fair that I direct your attention to a video made by Hank Green several years ago, in which he called science fiction novelist Orson Scott Card a “dick” for having different political views, and said, “Maybe I think you should pirate his books.”
I would never call Hank Green a “dick,” as I know nothing about how the man acts in his private life nor how he treats his family and friends. Nor would I encourage anyone to steal from him by pirating his books, as he did with Card. If you want to read them but are loath to give him your money, then I would recommend borrowing them from your local library, or buying them used, although if you do disregard my advice and pirate his books, I am powerless to stop you.
However, the disparaging way in which Green speaks about his fellow writers and those who disagree with him – even if he does so in a high-pitched voice – is worth keeping in mind for the remainder of this review, lest anyone accuse me of unnecessary harshness.
Anyway, off we go.
An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is the story of a bisexual New York hipster named April May. (I’m not kidding. This is actually her name. Admittedly, authors have a tendency to become attached to temporary placeholder names, but this is taking it to an entirely new level.) One day, April discovers on the streets of Manhattan a giant space alien robot which she promptly and irritatingly names Carl.
It soon transpires that there are dozens of “Carls” in major cities all around the world, and they have infected humans with a Dream puzzle, which requires all of humanity to pool their collective knowledge and work together. However, April May and her plucky band of misfit privileged hipster friends are foiled in their Zuckerberg-ian quest to Unite The World by (drumroll, please) a conservative political commentator, Peter Petrawicki, whose name appears to be a rather mean-spirited jab at Jordan Peterson (Petra being a city in Jordan).
Whatever his eponym, Petrawicki has the temerity to suggest that humanity should be suspicious of a group of extraterrestrials who have shown up on Earth with unclear intentions. For this perfectly reasonable word of caution, and since all conservatives are stupid and evil, and since April May’s goal to unite humanity apparently does not extend to people with different political views, Petrawicki and his followers, known as the “Defenders,” are made into the villains of the story and are disparaged at length by April May in her first-person snarker narration.
It is hard not to see a philosophical Obama-ism in all this: humanity is headed towards the End of History, a new globalized age of secular multicultural democracy, and the only ones standing in the way of that glorious vision are those pesky conservatives who bitterly cling to their faith and guns, refusing to get with the damned program already.
As Obama said when drafting the Iran nuclear deal in 2015, Iranians who chant “Death to America” are “making a common cause with the Republican caucus.” In Obama-ism, the conflict is not (as conservatives might see it) between good Americans, defenders of the West, and bad Iranians, upholders of a backward theocracy, but between liberals worldwide and conservatives worldwide, between globalist April Mays and provincially-minded Peter Petrawickis.
Of course, there is some truth to the notion of this divide. April May, or her real-life counterpart, has more in common with a fellow university-educated cosmopolitan from a foreign country than she would with a blue-collar stiff from her own country, one of Donald Trump’s “forgotten men and women.” As Christopher Lasch once wrote, “The privileged classes in Los Angeles feel more kinship with their counterparts in Japan, Singapore, and Korea than with most of their countrymen.”
It is no coincidence, therefore, that the Carls in An Absolutely Remarkable Thing choose to exclusively appear in major cities around the world. The inconsequential little lives of the citizens of Bumfuck-Nowhere, Pennsyltucky (population 2,507) are of no more concern to Green’s extraterrestrials than they were to Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Only urbanites are worthy of a Carl visit.
This – along with a certain ideological collectivism – is also apparent in the “Dream” concept. The puzzles given to humanity by Carl are deliberately designed to encourage collaborative work, to be beyond the ability of any one individual to solve alone. The fictional female president in the novel (unnamed, but implied to be Clinton) says in a speech that “all of humanity would have to work together to solve the mysteries of the Dream.”
At the climax of the book, Carl demands a collective action by all of humanity: for every Carl statue in the world (64 in total) to be touched with gold simultaneously. As April says, “The Carls want us to work together, they want us to be human together, to take a risk together, to make a choice together.” We’re All in This Together, as pandemic-era propaganda slogans constantly remind us.
Now, Hank Green is probably correct in his estimation of what would happen if aliens landed on Earth: liberals would be more excited and conservatives would be more frightened. As Jonathan Haidt is fond of saying, liberals tend to be higher in openness to experience than conservatives. And yet that does not mean openness is always a good thing. First contact with an alien race could just as easily be Independence Day or The War of the Worlds as it could be Star Trek or 2001: A Space Odyssey. Science fiction progenitor H.P. Lovecraft, dismissed today for his racism, was not entirely off-base in his fears that the Thing from the Stars, if it ever actually descends, could be an Eldritch Abomination.
As Peter Petrawicki said in Green’s novel, “I can tell you that in the history of our planet, advanced civilizations meeting less-advanced cultures doesn’t usually end well for the less-advanced people.” Although April May takes this as a subtle confession of Petrawicki’s own desire to dominate and torment, there is more than a grain of truth to his observation, as the most cursory glance at history reveals. Sometimes it really is good to be suspicious of change and novelty, and so the conservative voice is just as worthy of being heard as the liberal voice when confronting the unknown. If the people of Troy had listened to Laocoon – their own Peter Petrawicki – and not accepted the wooden horse, they might have met a different fate.
This is why it is so important for the right and left to be in dialogue with each other, for both perspectives to work together to functionally navigate the waters of unfamiliarity without going too far towards either extreme of foolhardy openness or stubborn closedness. And yet Hank Green would only have us villainize the conservative perspective, referring to his fictional pundit Peter Petrawicki in the harshest terms, a “hairball of hate” whose arguments April May “shoves right back down his throat to rejoin the fetid lump that had spawned them,” who spreads “poisonous” “made-up shit,” who is “the worst thing that ever existed,” and so on and so forth. What was that again about us all being human together?
Suffused throughout An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is also the love-hate attitude towards technology, both a force for promoting liberal right-mindedness and conservative stupidity. In Green’s Obama-ism, it is the internet which is supposed to bring us together into multicultural globalism, and there is a certain surprised, sputtering outrage at the realization, about halfway through the novel, that the likes of Peter Petrawicki and his Defenders can also use the internet. This, too, mirrors the nasty real-life realization over the past half decade that the internet is not the bastion of left-wing rationality that it was once thought to be, that it can spread Happy Merchant memes as easily as feminist think pieces.
Popular YouTube atheist vlogger Thunderf00t (real name Philip Mason) once called the Internet the place “where religions come to die.” Turns out it is not that simple; turns out that Nazis, flat earthers, Q believers, monarchists, Groypers, incels, and anyone with a dial-up connection can also use the internet. That is why Twitter called itself “the free speech wing of the free speech party”… until Donald Trump came along. Who would have guessed that placing such a powerful tool in the hands of average Joes might lead to chaos?
Indeed, there is a streak of self-righteous indignation throughout: How DARE these plebs, who could barely work a McDonald’s drive-thru window, let alone build a computer, use our technologies against us? Yes, we invented the internet to facilitate the spread of ideas, but not those ideas! It evokes, to them, the same sort of primal sense of wrongness as do pictures of a Viking-horned Jacob Chansley strolling through the Senate chamber.
More recently, John Green has published a sequel, A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor, in which we finally learn the secret of the Carls. Peter Petrawicki returns with a level-up in megalomania, like Professor Weston in Perelandra, although I doubt Green reads much C.S. Lewis. He is now running a Dogecoin of Death (I’m not kidding about that, either – the apocalypse is brought about by a cryptocurrency), and there is more lesbian sex, and Carl has an evil twin brother or something, and there is a very rich and privileged black woman from Manhattan (named Maya, but I’ll call her Meghan Markle) who spends a lot of time playing the victim, but I got bored and started skipping around at that point.
Although A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor was written before the pandemic started, multiple reviewers noted that there was a very 2020-esque feeling to the book. The moment was hammered in, for me, by a throwaway line early in the book about “think pieces…. happily guessing about the generation of kids who would be raised in a post-Carl world.” We have plenty of those in our world: just read what CNN had to say about the post-Covid generation, so-called Gen C, with one analyst saying that he “really env(ies) Gen C,” who will get to “live in a fascinating world” where “They will live their life (sic) online.” What a wonderful childhood.
This, perhaps, is why a certain strain of globally-minded folk seemed to not-so-secretly love the pandemic so much. It was their Carl moment. Green’s aliens required humanity to take global collective action, to work together in ways that transcended individual, familial, or regional concerns. Similarly, social distancing, or herd immunity via vaccination, only works (or so the line goes) if everyone does it. So long as one stubborn recalcitrant holdout refuses to “Do Your Part, Wear a Mask,” then all of humanity will pay.
Coronavirus lockdowns were the greatest collective action in history. Even World War II did not extend to every corner of the globe in the same way. It was The Year the Earth Stood Still. The entire planet shut down, more or less, except for a few rebel provinces like Sweden and South Dakota, and even these were not fully spared. There was no escape; the system was near-airtight. A generation of children will be scarred by it. The first memories of toddlers today – many of whom will live into the twenty-second century – will be related to it. Somewhere, right now, there is a three-year-old girl who will be an old lady in the year 2120, telling her assembled great-great-grandchildren the story of how she spent a year trapped at home when she was small and could not understand why. None of us will ever forget it, as long as we live, this great worldwide leap made with or without our consent.
For the Hank Greens of the world, shielded from the worst effects of lockdown, the global cooperation and transcendence was almost enough to make up for the ruined lives, the loneliness, the missed milestones, the shattered dreams. Not only that, but, just as in Green’s novel, it was only those wayward conservatives, the real-life Petrawickis and armies of Defenders, who refused to Get with the Program, whose obstinacy threw a wrench in the great machine. It does not matter that over 90 percent of the country masked up. The few percent who did not were an affront to the human race itself.
The dictators of old were men of small dreams. Limited by premodern technology, they aimed only for regional hegemony. But what is a Caliphate, or a Khanate, or a French Empire, or a Greater German Reich, or a Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, when one can have the whole planet at one’s fingertips? Even the British Empire, the largest in history, never conquered more than a quarter of the world. In Green’s glorious vision, there will be a global cooperative state on which the sun truly never sets, from which no escape shall be possible, except perhaps to Mars, and ruled over by a new breed of passive-aggressive androgynous tyrant. In an inextricably interconnected world, we are the eggs, and we are all in one basket.
For my part, I want none of it. For my part, I am grateful for all the pesky individualists and freethinkers and misfits out there, the ones who continue to forge their own self-determined paths in life, who refuse to follow directions blindly and Listen to the Experts and social distance and touch Carl statues with gold and the rest of it, who put private dreams and community ties ahead of the collective, who dare to pursue their own happiness. If the only way to survive as a species is to eschew such individualism, then perhaps we ought not to survive at all. Such a future would effectively mean our spiritual death anyway. If April May is the future, count me out. Call me a proud Defender.