How YouTube icon Hank Green found hope in a story of viral fame, politics, and giant robots

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Hank Green’s debut young adult novel, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, shows what he’s learned about internet fame.

If you’ve spent any time on YouTube in the last decade or so, chances are good that you’ve experienced the influence of Hank Green.

From vlogging to webseries to educational videos and everything in between, Green has had a hand in shaping vast swaths of YouTube culture, and he arguably occupies the most central role on the platform of any YouTuber — including his brother John, a celebrated young adult novelist with whom Hank regularly collaborates. Green has launched a major industry convention, Vidcon, taken home an Emmy, and interviewed a president — and now, in his newly released debut young adult novel, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, he’s put a uniquely personal spin on the experience of becoming an overnight celebrity.

Green’s book is ostensibly a fun sci-fi romp, a bit of a thought experiment about the intersection of modern life with the advent of giant robots from outer space — a kind of modernized version of Day The Earth Stood Still with a lot more irony.

But Green’s main preoccupation, as portrayed through his passionate, difficult 20-something heroine April May, isn’t with larger philosophical questions about what giant robots from outer space might want with us. It’s with the experience of waking up one day to find yourself a massive viral celebrity in a world whose politics have shifted overnight in conjunction with the changes in your own personal life.

If that sounds to you like a book that serves as a perhaps unwitting analog for the current sociopolitical era, you’re not far off. At a recent panel hosted by Scribd in New York, I sat down with Green for a candid chat about the intersection of art, politics, internet culture, and sci-fi that went into his book.

But to understand why Green’s take on these things is so unique — and, it’s worth noting, entirely different from a John Green novel — you first need to understand why Green himself is such a unique figure within YouTube culture.

The Green brothers, and Hank in particular, have played central roles in the growth of YouTube’s community

The Green brothers first rose to fame through their personal YouTube channel, where they became known as the Vlogbrothers. Begun in 2007, the channel was originally intended to be a way for them to stay in touch and share their thoughts with one another across the miles. Thanks to a few early viral videos, they became YouTube celebrities and an inspiration to a generation of their fans, collectively known as nerdfighters.

Characterized by the intermingling of pop-culture fandom and progressive politics, “nerdfighteria” was one of YouTube’s contributions to the evolution of modern internet fandom as it grew increasingly mainstream and morphed into a real-world movement one that carried online community and activism offline. Through projects like the Project For Awesome, which the Green brothers co-founded in 2007, they called upon nerdfighters and fellow YouTubers to fundraise for charity and create local activist groups in their communities.

Hank Green took this offline evolution seriously: in 2010, he founded VidCon, the first and largest major convention of YouTubers. Over the years, VidCon has ballooned from a sold-out crowd of about 1,400 people to a major industry event drawing over 25,000 creators, fans, and industry leaders.

Green has since become a founder of PodCon, a convention for the podcast community, and has built a thriving YouTube business around a number of popular side channels and related projects. Among these are Crash Course, where Hank, John, and guest instructors teach a series of courses across a huge range of subjects to more than 8 million subscribers, and SciShow, where Hank uses his science degrees to educate another 5 million subscribers.

Even his one-off projects sprout roots that keep growing: In 2012, he co-produced The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, an instantly influential vlog-style retelling of Pride and Prejudice that went on to inspire dozens of similar adaptations and became the first web series in history to win an Emmy. In 2014, the Vlogbrothers played a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall alongside guests like Neil Gaiman and the Mountain Goats. In 2015, when President Obama announced he would do interviews with a group of YouTubers, Hank Green, along with fellow vloggers Bethany Mota and Glozell, was one of the three stars chosen for the job.

After more than a decade of acclaim, fame, and wide-ranging activity, it might be difficult to remember that Hank Green wasn’t always a celebrity. But in An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, Green makes it very clear that he hasn’t forgotten it.

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is ostensibly about robots — but it’s really about a viral celebrity who finds herself caught in an internet culture war

Green’s heroine, April, has a lot in common with Green himself. Like Green, she finds herself popular overnight after a video she makes with a friend goes viral. Green’s viral moment began with his 2007 love song to Harry Potter on the eve of Book 7, “Accio Deathly Hallows.” April’s begins when she identifies a giant immobile robot on the streets of New York. She initially thinks it’s an art installation, but immediately discovers, along with the rest of the world, how wrong she is.

Like the Green brothers, April makes the choice to utilize her newfound in service of a progressive cause — in this case, her belief that the mysterious giant robots are benign, friendly beings intent on teaching humanity to work together and unite for a common goal. She deliberately works this idea into the personal brand she creates for herself en route to becoming an internet celebrity.

Then she sets out to insert herself into the unfolding narrative of the robot mystery, as she, her friends, and the rest of the world all try to figure out the robots’ purpose — and why they’re sending everyone on the planet the same strange series of dreams. She even, like Green, winds up befriending the president herself. (The emphasis on a female president is not without a touch of bitterness, as Green admitted to me.)

Over the course of the book, Green probes the responsibilities and liabilities of a person who chooses to be a public figure, essentially sacrificing their individuality and privacy for the chance to be an “influencer” in the sense of creating real-world change. Green handles all of this with a depth that comes from having experienced a certain tier of fame — and there are tiers, as he helpfully explains — and from spending a decade thinking about what all of this means. (He also shows off his love of sci-fi tropes, logic puzzles, and art, which all play a role in deciphering the robots’ ultimate purpose.)

But here’s where the similarities break down a little. Because unlike Green, April is a woman on the internet, operating in a time analogous to our own — a moment light years removed from the internet of a decade ago. Green’s first brush with virality occurred before the era of hashtag activism, Gamergate, social media-fueled culture wars, and the increasing 24-7 public scrutiny that can make even the briefest brushes with fame into terrifying experiences.

Green’s not shy about incorporating all these factors into April’s story as a direct response to the current political moment. April battles alt-right extremists intent on stopping her message of inclusivity and tolerance; she also battles competing narratives, driven by the media and other third parties, around her public persona.

Perhaps most importantly, she battles her own worst tendencies to be reactionary and extreme herself. Rather than coming across as a hero in the Harry Potter sense, April’s an ornery, frequently frustrating character who often railroads and alienates all her friends in pursuit of her goals. But that’s vital to making her story feel like something that could happen to any of us, with all of our faults and flaws.

It’s crucial to An Absolutely Remarkable Thing’s success that April isn’t extraordinary; her defining trait is that she’s a normal person who’s choosing to stand up loudly for Team Humanity in a cultural moment that’s defined by irrational hatred of the Other. She’s determined to frame the arguments of her opponents as thinly veiled prejudice and fear-mongering. Though the book was conceived and written well before the Parkland shooting, April is strongly reminiscent of the Parkland students — in that, once she’s been unexpectedly thrust into the forefront of a major political crisis, she seizes the moment and speaks out loudly.

That said, given the course of world events, there were moments reading Green’s book when I felt his faith in the power of his own narrative wavering a little. He’s built his brand on a decade of teaching fans to live out the progressive idealism they learned from their favorite stories. But is that enough?

I decided to ask Green himself.

Aja Romano

I think art is important to your whole family, and you have a community history around your appreciation for art. Were you thinking about things like the Art Assignment [a PBS webseries hosted by John Green and his wife Sarah Urist Green, who formerly curated art for the Indianapolis Museum of Art] as you wrote?

Hank Green

April is a graphic designer, I was once a graphic designer, so I’ve lived in that world. And I also have managed a bunch of freelancers, which I think is really fun — especially because once upon a time I was a freelancer, and so I know how to not do it very badly. And of course there’s nothing like working with a talented artist making something pretty.

But having Sarah Green as a sister-in-law, who is a curator of contemporary art and the creator of the Art Assignment, it gave me a different perspective on fine art — on “art for art’s sake” kind of art. I’m not good for poetry, I’m a pretty sort of structured mind guy. And understanding that stuff through her lens allowed me a kind of context that I wasn’t built with innately. And because April has that as an aspect of how she loves and understands the world, that was definitely important for me.

Aja Romano

Was that part of why you set the story in New York? Because I got the feeling that you drew on the fact that it’s the city of ironic detachment.

Hank Green

[Laughing] Yeah. It’s discussed openly early in the book that there’s this sense of, [shrugging] when you see so many amazing things. Where I live, in Missoula, Montana, I’ve been to all the cool places. In New York, no one’s been to all the cool places. And in a way, that makes it a little less special.

One year, Sarah took us around to all these, like, very small galleries in Manhattan — I don’t even know what neighborhood we were in. And we’d walk in off the street — the door’s open, you just go inside, and there’s these installations that just blew me away. I had no idea that something like this would just be existing, not even in a museum, in a gallery. Things for sale!

It sort of opened my eyes, in the same way that my understanding of biology allows me to see something, and scratch the surface a bit and understand its place within an ecosystem, and put that into a context that I already understand from like an ecology-slash-biochemistry background, there are these places where you scratch the surface a bit and suddenly all this beauty comes flowing out. I just had no idea and would never have if I didn’t have that in the family.

Aja Romano

Walk me through your timeline a bit as you were outlining and writing the story, versus what was happening in the political sphere. Because I feel like your ideas even evolved in the book as they went along, about “both sides” rhetoric, etc.

Hank Green

Right. Yeah, I started writing this book — I don’t know, I think I first had outlined stuff down in the form of me sketching it as a potential graphic novel back in 2013, and that was more of a commentary on cable news and just a fun first contact story, and a little bit a — I can’t say that, it’s spoilery. Even for you, it’d be spoilery. A story of a remarkable interesting thing happening to a person.

Then I put it aside for a while and came back to it in 2014, 2015, when the internet had for me changed in character. And a lot of people think about that having happened in 2016. But —

Aja Romano

No, it really —

Hank Green

We know.

Aja Romano

We knew.

Hank Green

[Laughs]

Aja Romano

I was covering Gamergate, I knew.

Hank Green

And 2014 was such a big deal for me in sort of no longer being unambiguously positive about the internet, and seeing what happened when different cultures shared the same space in a way that, like, they interacted but they never communicated. And seeing the destruction and the frustration and the bad action that that caused — the manipulation and the harassment, and seeing a certain kind of rhetoric be just, like, so appealing to a certain kind of person.

Aja Romano

I think I’m a little wary of the idea that April’s levels of polarized discourse become as heavy-handed and almost equal to the other side.

Hank Green

I think that she understands the negative impact that it’s having on her. She’s writing this book from her future perspective. And I think a lot of her perspective on this comes down not to, like, “Am I doing the wrong thing for the world?”, but, “Am I dehumanizing myself by imagining myself as a tool in this battle rather than as a human being? And am I only imagining other people as tools in this battle? And have I let other people seek dehumanization of me, make me not take care of myself in my relationships?”

Aja Romano

Do you feel like you’ve changed from a person into a story?

Hank Green

To be clear, we are all stories that we tell ourselves. I think you are a story you tell yourself and every person is, and we have this narrative that we keep in our mind that is who we are. That is why stories are so important to us as people, because ultimately, this trick of storytelling was not just a trick of communicating information, it was a trick of establishing self, and it is in a very real way the thing that makes us sentience. So.

That got deeper than I meant for it to.

Aja Romano

No, I think that makes total sense and I think is in line with the things you do generally.

Hank Green

Yeah. But the question is, like, what is the story that I have become in other people’s minds, and to what extent do I control of that story, and to what extent am I out of control of that story? And for a long time I felt completely in control of that story.

You’re obviously in control of it in your own mind, but in those moments when you lose control of it publicly, and people say things that are made up, or are just gross distorted versions of the story of the things that you’ve done — not having that control over how you are imagined is a feeling of victimization, it’s a feeling of powerlessness. At the same time you have to recognize that, like, that’s part of the process of being imagined by other people. Particularly by lots of other people all at once.

Aja Romano

Are you familiar with the term hopepunk?

Hank Green

No, I like it though. I’m already on board. [Laughs]

Aja Romano

I’m not sure how widespread it is, but it’s a term I’ve heard used, mainly among female fans, to describe a perceived emerging genre of sci-fi/fantasy that’s like —

Hank Green

Non-dystopian?

Aja Romano

Non-dystopian, and more, even if it’s not in conversation with dystopic literature, it’s arguing that social systems are inherently good, if that makes sense?

Hank Green

That makes perfect sense, that’s a great way to say that.

Aja Romano

The Martian might be a good example, The Goblin Emperor might be a good example. And I kind of wonder where you think this book fits into that.

Hank Green

I would be proud if it would be considered a part of that. There’s a difficult scene for me to keep in the book, in this world right now, where April meets the president and has a very positive experience and comes away feeling like this is a person who cares. And I wrote that scene before 2016, and it seems naive now. But I kept it in because if I’m going to be naive about something, I want to be naive about the power of humans taking care of humans and caring about public service.

And in my experience with people in politics, from Montana, the people largely aren’t there for power — in as much as they are, they’re there because they want to serve. And I think that’s a real thing, especially in local government. In America, we have very strong local government, very active, and that’s a lot of what I’m putting my hope in right now, is good, strong, local government, because that is where most government happens. Luckily, it’s a very big place and some people can be mobile and move around and get to places where they might be more well-treated.

So I’m very into it. I think ultimately this book is hopeful, and trying to discuss a powerful person as an empathetic person — in the moments when the president is realizing that even someone in April’s position is still imagining her as so much more than she is. Even that that can still be surprising to her, the president.