Book review: A Beautifully Foolish Endeavour by Hank Green

(cover image courtesy Hachette Australia)

If aliens were to invade Earth, and let’s be honest, if popular culture is any guide they are queued all the way back to the Kuiper Belt waiting to do so, the first question we would need to ask ourselves is who do need saving from – them or ourselves?

Because if tales of extraterrestrials meetings Homo Sapiens show us anything, it’s that when faced a challenge like the alien invasion-precipitated end of the world, humanity has a lamentable propensity to begin fighting within itself.

It’s not an edifying look, and you can only wonder what the aliens must think – when they’re not killing or enslaving us or both, anyway – but far more importantly, it diminishes any ability we might have to fight back successfully.

That is, of course, if the aliens arrived in the time-honoured spaceships fill the sky manner.

But what if, muses Hank Green, they arrived rather more surreptitiously and suddenly appeared as silent, giant statues in our cities – how would we react then?

We already know the answer to that thanks to his first novel An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, where the Carls as they dubbed spring up, unmoving, not talking and damn near unknowable save for nightly projections into the brain called “The Dream” and wholly disrupt human society, for the better, and naturally enough, the worse.

“Helping Miranda was the most normal and wonderful and real thing I had done in months. There is nothing like being needed by someone. Relationship drama? Friends sleeping with exes? That was stuff I had experience with. It felt important but also normal. I think we’re all ultimately searching for normal but important.” (Maya, P. 111)

The book details what happens to graphic artist-turned-social media darling April May, her bestie Andy Skampt, Maya, Miranda, Robin and a host of others, good and bad, including the Defenders, a rabidly fascist anti-alien group led by the tabloid-sensationalist Peter Petrawicki.

Green’s new book, A Beautifully Foolish Endeavour, looks at the aftermath of this “First Contact”, in which the heroes and the villains of the piece, and those in the middle who comprise the majority of humanity and our intrepid group of protagonists and antagonists are dealing with the rather messy, emotionally traumatic events of the arrival of the Carls.

Just like it’s predecessor, A Beautifully Foolish Endeavour asks some fairly weighty questions, as all good sci-fi should, about who we are as people and what it is we value most.

You may think you know the answers to these questions, and truthfully it would be lovely to say they are overwhelmingly, glowingly and humanity-affirming positive, but as you might suspect, once again we don’t exactly cover ourselves in glory.

Telling you precisely what happens, or even making oblique references to it, is complicated by the fact that a LOT goes down in An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, but suffice to say, when we meet everyone again, things are not as idyllic as everyone might hope they’d be after the Carls departed for parts unknown. (This is referenced on the back of the book so no a spoiler, so much as a marketing plot point.)

April is MIA. Maya is convinced she can find her ex-girlfriend who ended up not being the best partner a girl could ever ask for (April ends up so enamoured by the fame she once spurned that makes some very poor decisions) while Andy is now the darling of the TED Talk and podcast set, doing his best to stay grounded, recorded weekly podcasts with his housemate Jason and deal with the fact that he is now reasonably, though not extravagantly, wealthy.

Miranda has returned to her lab and attempts to pick up the scientific study she was undertaking when the Carls called all of human endeavour into question, and everyone’s favourite bad guy, Peter, claims to have turned a new leaf and via an immersive social media experience known as Altus Space (after his company), which is basically “The Dream” without the Carls, is hoping to give humanity a quantum leap into a bright and shiny future.

But it’s not quite that easy, and as Maya, Miranda, Andy, and yes eventually April come together once again, it becomes obvious that perhaps Peter, surprise surprise (!) is not quite so altruistic after all.

Because it appears that Altus Space, while capable of educating people quickly and expansively, potentially pushing forward the boundaries of humanity’s quest for knowledge in ways we can’t even imagine, may not be so good for people after all.

In fact, it could be very, very, ripping the fabric of society to shreds bad.

“Oh. Uh. I mean, all of the obvious reasons. If you put your hand on a stove and it keeps burning you, eventually you stop doing it, right? But was that the only reason? Maya and I hadn’t had that long to be reunited, but already I was comfortable. I was happy. And yes, we were in a $15M apartment, so that probably helped, but when I looked deeper, I found something else.” (P. 318)

Quite how bad slowly becomes clear as mysterious books appear to everyone, which declare with unnervingly good, life-changing accuracy what each person should do next, and everyone in the inner group begin to appreciate that perhaps the Carls never left after all.

And if they didn’t, what are they doing in secret to reshape human society and should we be alarmed, and this being a book of action as much as ruminative thought and great emotional resonance, should Andy, Maya, Miranda, April et al. be the ones to do it?

Of course they should, and A Beautifully Foolish Endeavour does a fine job of explaining how they come to the point where they realise that this time around they may have to save the world from itself (and maybe, just maybe, the Carls).

While the book does suffer a little from sequel-itis, possessing little of the mystery and wonder of the first book, it is nevertheless a compellingly written read because of the afore-mentioned questions about humanity, the gaping faultlines in our nature and whether the society we have or are inheriting is really the best one for us.

Green is not silly enough to try and answer them all conclusively in A Beautifully Foolish Endeavour since he is only man and this is only one book, albeit, a very good, highly-readable one, but he gives it a red hot go and as much as we are swept up in the emotions and actions of the slowly-but-consistently percolating narrative, we are also privileges to the exploration of some daunting conundrum and some fascinating ideas that may be the thing to save us, after all.

Or, at the very least, make life better in a host of different ways.

A Beautifully Foolish Endeavour is brilliantly immersive sci-fi with a mind, possessed of compellingly flawed but likeable characters, a threat that is obvious, and not, at the same time, making fighting back kind of tricky, and a storyline that runs as much as it pauses to ponder, a tale that ask, once again, rather entertainingly as it turns out, who we want to be and just what we are are willing to do to attain it.

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