I guess I'm on a futuristic novel kick lately, although that wasn't planned. Today's book is Rash by Pete Hautman, a National Book Award winner published in 2006. Like The Hunger Games, the novel by Suzanne Collins that I discussed a few days ago, Rash imagines what might happen if certain conditions of today continue unchecked into the future. Unlike The Hunger Games, Rash is funny and satirical. The year is 2076, America is now the USSA, and the pledge has evolved to the following:
I pledge allegiance to the flag
of the Safer States of America
and to the Republic for which it stands
one nation under law
with security and safety for all.
In sixteen-year-old Bo Marsten's United Safer States of America, 24% of all teens and adults are serving time in workcamps, sent away as menaces to society. Drop a piece of fruit while unloading groceries and someone slips on it and gets a concussion? You're sent up for a year of hard labor on a farm. Punch a guy out at a party? For Bo's brother that's two years patching holes on a Nebraska freeway. Road rage? You risk a prison stint shelling shrimp in Louisiana -- like Bo's dad. In fact, legislating higher safety standards than mere humans can bear has resulted in an economy that depends on a sizable prison population to perform its manual labor.
Bo is a talented runner, proud of running 100 meters in under 14 seconds. But his gramps, born way back in 1990, did it in 11. "That was before the Child Safety Act of 2033," says Bo. "Now every high school runner has to wear a full set of protective gear -- AtherSafe shoes with lateral ankle support and four layers of memory gel in the thick soles, knee pads, elbow pads, neck brace, tooth guard, wrist monitor, and an FDHHSS-certified sports helmet. We raced on an Adzorbium trace with its five centimeters of compacted gel-foam topped by a thick sheet of artificial latex. It's like running on a sponge." In Bo's world, it's illegal to walk outdoors without a helmet, own a large dog, possess a chain saw, drive without a safety web, or play football. (Football is still on TV, but broadcast from South American countries like "Columbistan" and Paraguay.) Students who appear ill in the classroom are escorted out by a pair of masked medtechs and taken to quarantine.
Bo has typical high school problems. The girl he likes prefers the guy he hates, fellow runner Karlohs Mink. Bo also has some of the same temper problems that plagued his father and brother, and he's already in trouble for calling Karlohs "dog-anus mouth." It's a "three-strikes-and-you're-out world," and Bo has two strikes. (What was strike one? That was the time his classmate broke a pencil and Bo flipped him a replacement whose graphite tip accidentally punctured the forehead of a third student. Bo got a month's probation, and pencils were banned from the school.) His luck runs out when students start getting a strange facial rash and Karlohs manages to place blame on Bo. He's sentenced to an Arctic camp (the USSA has annexed Canada) that makes assembly-line pizzas (a strictly retro food for old geezers) and is surrounded by the world's few remaining, very hungry polar bears. But the warden at this camp fields an illegal football team. And because he can run, Bo makes the team. Prison isn't so bad -- pizza and football -- but how will he feel when he has to go back to his regimented life? Hint: After high school graduation, South American football is looking pretty good.
One passage in this novel stopped me cold. After relating Gramps's memories of shopping malls in the early 21st century -- you would go to actual stores, try on actual shoes (now banned for fear of the spread of athlete's foot) -- Bo launches into a paragraph that begins, "Everything works different now, of course." He then proceeds to tell us how mall shopping works "now": a vending machine measures you for size, shows you a hologram of how you'd look in the item, etc. But just a minute. Whom is Bo talking to here? Why would Bo, a teen in 2076, think he was speaking to someone who didn't know how to shop at a mall in that day and age? This struck me as a serious misstep in a 6-page chapter, although perhaps smallish in proportion to the whole novel. A lapse of logic in an otherwise entertaining story.