Kevin J. Anderson,
(Bantam Spectra, 2002)

Hopscotch is the latest non-media-crossover book from one of science fiction's most prolific authors, Kevin J. Anderson. Anderson has written Star Wars books and X-Files books and it's this work that allowed him to break the Guinness world record for the largest single-author book signing. But Anderson has also been nominated for the Nebula Award, demonstrating that he's a talented and inventive author in the estimation of his peers.

From the outset I should state that I'm not a fan of media tie-in novels. I have, however, been impressed by what I've read of Anderson's original work including Assemblers of Infinity and Ill Wind, both written in collaboration with Doug Beason, and his solo novel Climbing Olympus. So I was looking forward to Hopscotch, which Anderson has called his most ambitious work; it's been more than a decade in the writing. In the end, though, Hopscotch struck me as unexceptional and flat.

The central premise in Hopscotch is that the human race has somehow come upon the ability to transfer the mind from one body into another. No fancy machinery involved, it's a purely mental capability. People in this future "hopscotch" much like people today change jobs or apartments. Hopscotch is told from the vantage points on four childhood friends. One of the four, Daragon, is unable to hopscotch but possesses the ability to see past the body to the mind of the person inhabiting a given human form. This unique skill results in his being recruited to a law enforcement career with the Bureau of Tracing and Locations. Daragon's former playmates Garth, Teresa and Eduard remain close friends and Daragon keeps tabs on them from a distance, using his position with the BTL to help them out of difficulties when he can -- until the day one of his friends commits murder.

Hopscotch has plenty of action; Anderson certainly understands how to keep the story moving. But the novel strives to be more than a dynamic plot, setting out to examine complex themes including the meaning of identity and the responsibilities of friendship. Unfortunately, the story keeps pushing simple answers, ones that too often involve thinking with fists.

Anderson also invites comparisons to the work of Charles Dickens by repeatedly pointing out that his characters were strongly influenced by their childhood reading of Oliver Twist and David Copperfield. "The tales were about strange people from other times with problems and concerns so different from ours, but still oddly the same. When Garth read aloud, it was a magical experience." This is a comparison that points up many of the problems with Hopscotch. Dickens imbued his characters with much more depth than Anderson manages to pour into his protagonists. For Hopscotch to have lived up to the challenge Anderson would have needed to delve much further below the surface of his characters. He'd have needed to trust the reader to be willing to forgo the fisticuffs and gunfire in favor of real insight. And he'd have needed to find a wider variety of literary devices rather than relying constantly on similes.

I'm afraid my best advice for those looking for an engaging science fiction read is to hop past Hopscotch and check out Paul McAuley's The Secret of Life, reviewed elsewhere on this site.

[ by Gregg Thurlbeck ]
Rambles: 10 August 2002

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