I’ve previously reviewed An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green, a science educator and YouTube host alongside his brother, John (author of The Fault in our Stars). Hank’s debut novel featured a visit by an enigmatic alien robot named Carl, and the world’s reaction to it seen through the lens of social media. I thought it was a good story and a brilliant commentary on today’s internet culture.
Well, now, it’s two years later, and the internet culture if anything has only become crazier, and Hank Green is back with the sequel, A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor. I have to say, this one is even better than the original. More action; more intrigue; more stakes. (Quite a few more words, for that matter.) And this time, he goes even deeper and broader into examining humanity’s relationship with technology and each other.
My rating: 5 out of 5.
We were left at the end of An Absolutely Remarkable Thing with the alien AI Carl having disappeared after the apparent death of his “spokesperson,” April May. Unlike the first book, which was told almost entirely from April’s point of view, this one is told by her group of friends, including Carl themself* (although April does come back thanks to Carl’s help).
Months after April’s (and Carl’s) disappearance, strange things continue to happen. April’s best friend, Andy, receives a book that can see the future. Her ex-girlfriend, Maya, untangles a web of mysteries that leave tantalizing hints to April’s survival. And Miranda, who joined the group after figuring out some of the science around Carl, is offered a job at a company that is working to bring back the virtual reality-like Dream that Carl gave to humanity—and monetize it, of course.
It didn’t strike me until I finished the book how different it is from the first one. The first book was very much about social media, fame, and how we interact with each other and find meaning through those thing. This book was much more of a game of spies and conspiracies played in the shadow, and while the original themes are still very much there, A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor is much more about our relationship with technology in general, and power—especially the power that technology holds over us in the wrong hands. If there’s one thing I preferred about the first book, its the lighter, more innocent tone (in comparison), but this was a story that definitely needs to be told, and it is certainly a worthy follow-up on Hank’s part.
Two things struck me about this book. The first is a quote that has made the rounds on the internet for a long time. In his book The Dilbert Future, cartoonist Scott Adams wrote something along the lines of, “The holodeck will be society’s last invention.” (Meaning that once we have perfect virtual reality, it will sap the motivating to invent anything else.) He wrote that way back in 1997, not just before social media, but before Google!
I was reminded of that quote constantly in this book with regard to the virtual reality system Altus, which is basically a one-person holodeck. (I felt it much more strongly than other books featuring similar technologies like Ready Player One.) It made me think a lot about how that kind of technology (which probably is coming!) can be used responsibly and what the pitfalls will be. After all, Carl points out that it isn’t the technology itself that is bad, but the concentration of (in this case corporate) power that it creates.
The other interesting thing was the battle between two entities who can predict the future very, very well. Weird stuff happens when an alien computer and can consider the actions of every human being on Earth a million times over months in advance, and it only gets weirder the more you think about it, especially when the alien computer’s own actions start to affect the probabilities. It feels like Carl’s brother** locked themself into a self-fulfilling prophecy with Altus, for example. (If you’re unfamiliar with this sort of thing, think Doctor Strange’s One Solution in Avengers: Endgame.) Honestly, I think the web serials Worm and Ward did it better, but there’s still a lot of interesting game theory stuff going on under the surface.
So, all in all, I highly-recommend A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor as a thrilling tale of alien encounters and a very thought-provoking commentary on today’s society and where we’re going next.
*Carl uses they/them pronouns.***
**Who should totally have been called Big Brother, but maybe there was a trademark issue or something.
***Is it “themself” or “themselves”? Most authorities still say it’s “themselves,” but Hank uses “themself,” and it sounds better in context.