The strapline for Neal Shusterman’s latest book says, ‘ There are infinite ways to do the wrong thing.’ This is exactly what Ash Bowman, the seventeen-year-old protagonist in Game Changer discovers.
Ash Bowman is a lineman in an American Football team. He lives an ordinary life and has liberal attitudes. His closest friend is black – racism doesn’t feature in Ash’s multi-ethnic school, where students of all backgrounds get along just fine. At least that’s how Ashley sees it. His uncomplicated life is thrown into turmoil when a forceful tackle at a football match propels him into an alternate universe. At first, he is just disorientated; everything seems to be the same, except stop signs are now blue, not red, as Ash discovers when he narrowly avoids a catastrophic traffic accident. It’s the first of many shifts and changes, presenting Ash with new problems, new questions, new social realities.
One of the affordances of literature is that it allows readers to walk in the shoes of diverse characters and so experience the world from different perspectives. Shusterman pushes this idea one step further by offering the reader the opportunity to walk in the shoes of a character who is experiencing the universe through the eyes of different characters. With each new social reality, he confronts beliefs and attitudes at odds with his own until realisation dawns that these new worlds amplify his own world’s systemic problems.
This could have been a navel-gazing exercise, but Neal Shusterman is an excellent writer. Although Game Changer is driven by big ideas and brings into focus so many in the space of 350 pages, philosophising is never to the detriment of the storytelling. The reader keeps turning the pages because they want to know what will happen to Ash next. We care about this young man, who though naive, wants to do the right thing and get back to his own world – to return home. Shusterman provides entertainment in the ‘Eds, strange astral creatures that appear to assist Ash find his way home. Each universe has it’s own Ed with contrasting character traits, friendly, antagonistic, querulous. They prescribe baths of mint, potassium and crushed eggshells to help Ash manage the crushing headaches that increase with every seismic shift.
On a personal level, I found the mechanics of universe shifting perplexing – but then you would expect them to be. I was completely willing to suspend my disbelief and submit to the storytelling without scrutinizing it too deeply.
Netflix has bought the rights to turn Game Changer into a series, and it feels like a good match, judging by recent series. Neal is involved in the scriptwriting process. If or when it comes to fruition, I hope that it doesn’t become too leggy and lose the original story’s power. The Netflix network has, in my view, a history of pushing things too far, which may be good for the bank account but less satisfactory for coherent storytelling.
In summary, Neal Shusterman is an important voice in YA fiction, and this story is both thought-provoking and compelling. I hope it will find many readers, who like Ash, may consider themselves liberal but realise self-satisfaction is as much a problem as overt racism or sexism. Activism and action are the game changers that will create a more just and equal world.
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