Thursday, August 17, 2006

Safety First!

Have you ever listened to your mom or dad, or even better, your grandma or grandpa, tell you stories about what it like when you were a kid?

Not the "when I was your age, I walked a mile to school and back, barefoot, in the snow, uphill both ways" hooey, but stories about the type of stuff that kids used to do. My dad grew up on a farm, he got his first gun when he was nine, and he has a great story about the time he fell 15 feet or so out of the hayloft and his dad ran over him with the tractor. A librarian I used to work with told me that it was always exciting when a kid in her family turned ten, because then you got your own pack of matches to take out in the woods with you. Even I, tender young thing that I am, remember riding my bike as a young'n, cruising major streets, blissfully unaware of traffic laws or basic bike safety, helmet-free.

Things are different today, huh? Matches are kept under lock and key, there are pads for every possible body part, and when I think of my daughter getting near a gun, I feel a little faint. But it's a good thing, right? I mean, safety first!

Well, in Rash by Pete Hautman, safety first isn't just a slogan, it's the law. In 2076 in the United Safer States of America, the Child Safety Act makes sure that nobody gets hurt -- by making everything dangerous illegal. And dangerous is a mighty elastic term. Bo Marsten's dad got sent to prison for "road rage" -- making an obscene gesture at another driver and slamming his fist on the hood of his car. Bo's brother is on a prison road crew for going to an unauthorized graduation party and getting into a fist fight. His neighbor went up for a year for "littering".

Bo knows that antisocial impulses -- the kind that get you put in prison -- run in his family. It's not so unusual though, in 2076, 1 in every 5 adults is doing time in a McDonald's Rehabilitation Center. In fact, most of the labor in the USSA is done by prisoners. Still, Bo tries to take his medication and keep his temper in check. However, when the all too aptly named Karlos Mink starts sniffing around Bo's girlfriend and engineers a psychosomatic rash that gets blamed on Bo -- well you can't blame a guy for loosing it.

Bo gets sentenced to 3 years at a McDonald's center in the Arctic North -- a pizza factory. Prison is like nothing Bo has ever seen before, all sharp edges and hard corners. What's worse is that the prison warden, a former football player, has a secret team made up of the most athletic inmates. And he wants Bo, a track star, to join. Contact sports are illegal, of course, but who's gonna know in prison?

As Bo learns the rules of the game, he discovers he actually enjoys the sport -- which bothers him, a little bit. Also troubling is Bork, an Artificial Intelligence that Bo made for a school project, who seems to have developed free will and has a plan to free Bo from the pizza factory. Then, of course, there are the polar bears...

Rash might not be the right book for every reader, as it has many plot threads that twist and turn like a giant spider web, but those who like good, chewy thought-provoking sci-fi, won't mind doing a little time with Bo.

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