Hopscotch, Kevin J. Anderson

Bantam Spectra, 2002, 468 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-57640-2

The pulp-magazine origins of genre science-fiction have allowed it to evolve its own self-sustaining market, its own rarefied standards of extrapolation and its own sub-culture of specialized fans. SF has prospered under these conditions, but in working within its own ghetto, has also relied too long on a few lazy habits that are hard to break. Intentional simplification is one of those conventions that has to go, and otherwise satisfying works like Kevin J. Anderson’s Hopscotch demonstrate why.

The standard procedure goes like this: Given a really good idea, the author’s temptation is to write a story set in a future shaped almost exclusively by this idea. For most of SF’s history, this has meant flying cars in settings identical to white American suburbia, circa 1950-1960. Caucasian heroes saving the galaxy while their housewives are busy raising the mutated kids. Nuclear families with atomic rocketships.

But back in the real world, we know that the present isn’t so simple, and that the future is even less likely to be so. The hallmark of today’s best SF writers (as represented by Sterling, Stross, etc.) is to present a future that is as textured, as shattered as today’s society. Futures with political complexity. Futures with doubt, incompetence and all sorts of human failings in environments that will never gleam with glass and chrome. Old-school SF, in this context, can still be enjoyable —but it just doesn’t hold up as a piece of credible extrapolation.

Kevin J. Anderson’s Hopscotch, despite considerable lengths and a regrettable political naiveté, is a lot of fun to read. From a basic concept (what if minds could easily hop from one body to another?), Anderson imagines four hundred pages’ worth of incidents, anecdotes, economic transactions and other neat consequences. The plot is built as a template on which to hang as many of those body-switching ideas as possible. In many ways, it’s a throwback to the pure idea-throwing fun of classic genre SF. After the first few pages, it’s obvious that Hopscotch doesn’t mean to be cutting-edge SF, but a nostalgic idea-driven romp. (The hopscotching process itself is left purposefully vague, relying on foggy noosphere notions that aren’t developed very well.) The writer is purposefully playing a very specific SF game, and well-behaved readers will know how to play along.

It works well, but only up to a point. I’m not going to say much about the straight-to-the-fact writing and the utilitarian style, mostly because genre SF has evolved a tolerance for efficient prose. What hurts a lot more is the emptiness of Hopscotch‘s world beyond the hopscotching. It all takes place in a vaguely specific America, with absent political structures and undefined social issues. (As you may expect, if the US is an abstraction in Hopscotch, the rest of the world is even less visible.) There’s a brand-new, all-powerful regulatory agency to prevent hopscotching abuse. Otherwise, well, you’re left wondering. The very concept of hopscotching seems to have been greeted with widespread approval, and there’s no word of anything looking like a counter-hopscotching movement.

But is it fair to nit-pick this novel with such base concerns? Hopscotch, after all, doesn’t aim to present a “real” vision of the future. The lack of technical details points the way: this is old-fashioned science-fantasy, using the rational language of SF to make a point after a purely speculative, even fantastic premise. If the characters act like dim-bulbs through the entire plot, it’s to precipitate the action. If the world has no political complexity, it’s to simplify the plotting. (Even the organizational politics don’t make sense; an FBI agent today would not be allowed to head an investigation tracking down one of his best buddies.) Hopscotch has chosen to be a mean idea machine.

A more serious objection to Hopscotch as a piece of old-school SF is that by those very same old-school standards, it’s almost unbearably long. Novels of the sixties barely topped 250 pages. This one clocks in a nearly twice that, and the last third of the novel seems needlessly long. Worse; it’s precipitated by stupid actions by characters. You know that a novel, as fun as it is, has overstayed its welcome when you wish the runaway character would just give himself up.

It’s enough to drive you nuts: Hopscotch is a fun, fine novel, packed with ideas and easy to read. Yet it remains so far and so close to something better, something that could actually have relevance to today’s world rather than yesterday’s genre.

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