In Neal Shusterman’s latest young adult book, Game Changer, the coronavirus pandemic is over, the Tibbetsville Tsunamis are gearing up for a new football season, and Ash Bowman’s world is pretty much okay.
At least that’s what Ash thinks. He’s got great friends—even if some of them make offensive jokes. He loves his position as a lineman on his high school football team, the guy who makes important tackles—even if he doesn’t get any of the glory. But when Ash takes a strange hit to the head in the middle of a game, the world starts to look a little different. Specifically, stop signs start to look blue, when Ash is pretty sure they used to be red. And then things get even weirder.
Game Changer is a coming-of-social-awareness story with a sci-fi twist: It rockets its protagonist into an alternate reality each time he hits his head. The rules of the shift, which Ash learns slowly, are a complicated, compelling variation on the idea of parallel universes. And because this is Shusterman, the bestselling author of the Unwind and Arc of a Scythe series, it’s not surprising that Game Changer’s science fiction premise quickly turns dystopian. After a few reality-shifting knocks on the head, Ash finds himself in an America where the Supreme Court never ruled that racial segregation was unconstitutional. Suddenly, Ash’s once-diverse football team is 100% white, and his Black best friend, Leo, works at a supermarket and doesn’t recognize Ash at all. As Ash struggles to get back to something that looks like his own reality, he finds himself looking at his world—and his privilege—from a new perspective.
Sometimes, Game Changer’s earnest messagecan start to feel preachy: Every breakthrough Ash has about privilege or inequality is spelled out and agonized over in the narrative. Often, his big realizations are long monologues that take place entirely in his head, rather than scenes that show us the change in his character, and the payoff doesn’t feel quite satisfying.
At its best points, though, Game Changer reminded me of David Levithan’s Every Day, another story about a protagonist forced to figure out who they are when the world around them is always shifting. As Ash comes to realize how much his environment has shaped his outlook, he sees his friends and family in a new way and discovers some surprising, touching things about himself. For instance, he’s shocked to find himself in a world where he’s gay and ends up with a more open-minded idea of his own sexuality.
Some readers might be put off by the idea of a 2021 novel about a well-meaning white guy learning about racism, misogyny, and homophobia. I think that’s fair, and I also think other books and media have executed this concept better than Shusterman does here. But readers who are open to Game Changer might find the lesson Ash learns to be an optimistic one: Seeing the world more clearly doesn’t have to be hopeless. And you don’t have to shift all of reality to make a change.
Game Changer by Neal Shusterman was released on February 9, 2021.