When Hank Green started writing a book, one with a classic science-fiction trope that we won't divulge here, he knew he needed to differentiate it somehow.
"Hey, I know a lot about being on the internet, and it's 2018, so maybe that's a thing that we should do," said the very famous video blogger, science nerd, and Missoula resident.
His debut novel, "An Absolutely Remarkable Thing," melds sci-fi with a cautionary tale about online celebrity and the broken way our culture communicates on the internet in the breezy, brainy and whimsical voice that has earned him millions of followers online.
A book that closely critiques the perils of fame and online culture might seem surprising coming from Green, who at 38 is a member of the generation that held a utopian view of the internet's possibilities, and whose positive and earnest outlook is best summarized in his slogan, "Don't Forget to Be Awesome."
Yet he remains "long-term optimistic" about the future.
"I think that humans are really good at solving problems," he said in an interview. "We're not great at solving problems that we don't recognize exist. That can be disappointing and discouraging sometimes. I think that in terms of the internet and culture, things are probably going to get worse before they get better," he said, adding "I just think we have to learn a lot of new tools for how to handle this very, very, very big change that we've had in our culture. And we don't recognize how significant it is, and you know, that doesn't happen immediately. It takes time and it takes effort (and) thought, and we're doing that now but it's not going to happen immediately."
The scenario in which Green explores the issues is this (read on for themes but no plot spoilers beyond the first 20 pages or so): A 23-year-old art school graduate named April is walking home from work (a start-up that she hates) early in the morning when she comes across a 10-foot-tall sculpture that resembles a Transformer in Samurai armor. She and a friend shoot a video and upload it to YouTube. The next day, they learn that 60 of these statues appeared simultaneously around the world, leaving no clues to their origins. Because their video was the first, April and her friend Andy, being broke young people, see an opportunity. Their pursuit of online fame, somewhat innocent at first, then damaging to April's life, plants them on a larger and potentially more ominous path with repercussions for the entire world.
Ahead you'll find a run-down, heavy on numbers, that is deliberately long, so readers who don't watch YouTube can get an idea of just how famous Green is and how well he knows the subject he's writing about.
He graduated from the University of Montana with a master's degree in environmental studies. In 2006, he and his brother, the cultishly adored novelist John Green ("The Fault in Our Stars," 5.19 million Twitter followers), started a YouTube channel that they grew into an empire for online video. On VlogBrothers, the two hold court on whatever subject they like in hyper-articulate, rapid-fire banter. (They have 3 million subscribers.) Elsewhere in the Complexly portfolio, you may have seen SciShow (more than 5 million subscribers,) which gives light-hearted and funny primers on scientific questions; Crash Course (upward of 8 million subscribers) does the same on topics that range from literature to science. They founded a conference, VidCon, for fellow video creators that drew 30,000 attendees to its flagship event in Anaheim in 2017. It's expanded to Australia and England. Earlier this year, they sold it to Viacom.
Hank's Twitter account has around 750,000 followers. In early October, he tweeted, "Retweet this if you are going to vote every single chance you get until you're dead." About 26,000 accounts followed his instructions, with a bonus of 38,000 likes.
Apart from all that creative activity, Green has started and abandoned four or five books. The first attempt, before he graduated, was an allegory, couched in "extremely pretentious college student writing," about disengaging from culture, which sounds odd coming from him, or at least "me now," as he said. Another was a fantasy scenario about anarchism and capitalism set in a magical town. Yet another centered on a young nobleman, who after a war is taken and raised (kindly) by the enemies of his people as a form of ransom against future battles. The hitch is that the enemies of his people are dragons. He still likes the concept, but wonders whether he's the right person to see it through.
He had the first inkling of "An Absolutely Remarkable Thing" around 2013, he said, "before I even had a very complicated internet relationship. Back then, I had a very unambiguously positive view of what the internet could and would do for humanity — and me."
He began "listening to people about their experiences, because my experiences were bound to be more positive," as he's a white American male.
"Listening to the experiences of women on the internet, particularly, I was just like, 'Oh, this is awful, I don't know how you deal with any of this.' And people would come to me for advice, like, 'How do I deal with this person who has been emailing me threatening things for months now, and the police don't take it particularly seriously because he doesn't live in my town, but like, planes exist?' And not really knowing how to handle that except to be like, 'I can't believe you have to deal with that,'" he said.
The next few years regrettably provided even more fodder. There was "Gamergate," a bizarre online controversy that was supposedly about the ethics of video game reviews but played out as harassment of women journalists. Then came Russian trolls and corrosive online punditry (professional and amateur) and Green had more than enough material and a sense of urgency to complete the book in 2016.
The bad-faith manner of online dialogue and its enabling effects troubled him.
"We should all agree this person doesn't have points … it is the equivalent of a person ranting and raving on the bus. But because it's on the internet, you're lending it this credence, when it should just be this person ranting and raving on the bus, but now they have a keyboard," Green said.
As you'd expect from Green, the book has serious themes and an often humorous side — the "statues" are all nicknamed "Carl," and a key part of the plot hinges on the Wikipedia page for the Queen song "Don't Stop Me Now" — not the song, but the Wikipedia page. (In real life, the page has been updated to reflect this. A fan even dropped a marker for the New York Carl on Google Maps.)
Green's background research and models for the book include sci-fi icon Ursula K. Le Guin (the way she devised new cultures), Frank Herbert's classic "Dune" (a protagonist who resents the arc pushing them forward), Michael Connelly mysteries (the plotting, which he said is more like a science than an art), and television series like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and the anime "Full Metal Alchemist" (the way they can switch tones from goofy and silly to heartrendingly sad or serious).
Those two series are examples of writing in "which whimsy and absurdity doesn't grate against but help support the tremendous weight of the situation and the seriousness of it, and terror and grief and pressure and mistakes. It doesn't seem like those things should be able to work together, but I've witnessed them working together and so I knew that it was possible," he said.
April, who narrates in a smart and friendly tone and long sentences, will be pleasingly familiar to fans of the voice that Green uses in his videos. A graduate with a bachelor's degree in design at an art school, she's conflicted about the relationship between art and commerce, and initially shoots a video of the "Carl" sculpture because she's disappointed in the way we can ignore such a "completely and absolutely remarkable thing" in our daily lives.
She doesn't care much for Twitter at all when she first becomes online-famous.
"We are sort of resentful of the things we can't engage with, and then once we get the opportunity to engage with them, we're suddenly not so resentful of them," Green said.
As the plot moves onward, she begins using her platform for a noble cause and becomes hooked on to the nonstop barrage of likes, retweets, arguments and counterarguments, and the validation they provide.
"That definitely drew on personal experience, where it's like watching people engage with what you create is a feeling of feeling valued, and that's all we are looking for as humans. And then when that decreases, like when it's on the way up it feels good, being more valued, and when it decreases you're comparing yourself to like not a normal person, you're comparing yourself to your former self, and then it feels really bad. You're less valuable than you used to be," Green said.
Green emphasized that the book isn't just about well-known people — anyone on social media does this to a certain degree, creating a "personal brand."
"This is what happens, even if people aren't thinking about it. We're all trying to create a consistent idea of who we are in other people's heads, and in our head, because otherwise it's very difficult to live," he said.
An important point that floats throughout the background is about the destructive effects of celebrity.
"Getting famous at all is inherently a process of intentional dehumanization. If you are going for fame, you want people to dehumanize you. You want people to ultimately come out of this conversation, this thing you've built in their head, being surprised that you do normal person stuff. There's a page in Us Weekly that's like, 'They're just like us.' That's apparently, after all this time, something we're still surprised by. Like Jennifer Aniston walks her dog. You know?" he said.
The goal of fame, and reducing a person to a brand, is to "strip away all the human parts and just have a set of positive ideas about like beauty and talent and skill and positive attributes. We're trying to go for a set of positive attributes and that is who they are, and that's a really nice feeling, but is a dehumanization," he said.
He added that it can be "pleasant," because "you're being lifted above being human," yet that makes it easy to treat you poorly.
"It is the one thing, the fame, that allows both the positive parts and the negative parts, and so when you're going for fame, you're asking — you're requesting — dehumanization. You want it, and that is really interesting to me," he said.