Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Don't Be Rash! (But read it!)

Rash by Pete Hautman
4Q 3?P J/S

Let's jump ahead about seventy years, shall we? Let's check out the situation in the good old USSA. Because of things like the Child Safety Act of 2033, protective gear is all the rage. You don't just wear a helmet when you're biking, you wear it when you're running track, too. In fact, you might just wear it pretty much all the time, possibly along with knee and elbow pads. You can never be too safe. What sorts of things can get you in trouble with the law, even thrown in jail? Owning large dogs. Driving without a safety web. Body piercings and tattoos. Drinking alcohol. Littering. Road rage. Not taking your medication (which you take to control your moods). Not wearing your safety gear. Throwing a pencil. Shoving someone against the wall. Verbally attacking someone's physical appearance. Guess how many of those things our hero, Bo, has done? Too many.

Bo blames his troubles on his Marsten genes. His proof: five members of his family are serving time. Bo's about to make it six. You see, Bo is crazy about a girl named Maddy. They've been dating for a while, but lately she's been showing some interest in Karlohs, a guy Bo can't stand, so he desperately wants to impress her. Maybe breaking the school's record (13.3 seconds) for the 100-meter dash will do it. Unfortunately, Karlohs destroys him in the race. To make things worse, Bo loses his temper and verbally assaults Karlohs after the race. Dissing someone is a serious offense, and Bo already has two strikes against him, one for throwing that afore-mentioned pencil and one for a shoving incident. Because of the "three strikes and you're out" policy, he's teetering on the brink of being sent to prison. Then Karlohs comes down with a rash, and blames Bo for it. When the rash spreads to other students, Bo is put on home quarantine. Just when Bo thinks things can't get any worse, it does. He winds up in a fist fight with Karlohs at a local mall. That does it. It's jail time for another Marsten male. Bo soon finds himself way, way up north, in a prison run by McDonald's. (Prisons in the 2070s are run by major companies, such as McDonald's and Pepsi. The country's entire labor force comes from the prison system.) Bo is in for a rude shock. The guards use physical abuse! They verbally assault the prisoners! There are unprotected hard surfaces and sharp corners in the prison! Unheard of! People could get hurt! Welcome to the life of a nail.

Bo's life is reduced to thin white coveralls, a whale of a cellmate (400 pounds and counting), and pizza. Hour after hour of making pizza, meal after meal of eating pizza. He's going stir crazy. Then he starts to notice that there are about twenty inmates who don't have to wear the coveralls or eat pizza three meals a day. They wear jeans and gold shirts and get good stuff to eat. What's up with that? Soon enough, Bo finds out. It seems the Warden, aka The Hammer, loves the highly illegal sport of football. The Goldshirts are his football team. They're the fittest, meanest, and toughest guys in the prison. And Bo's about to become one of them. Is this a good thing? Bo's not too sure about that!

Bo's prison life takes another strange turn when Bork, an artificial intelligence program he created for school, suddenly starts showing up on the prison computers. It shouldn't be able to do that, since Bo isn't a very good programmer and Bork was barely going to get him a passing grade. But now Bork could...and does...pass for human, and he's determined to get Bo out of jail free.

Which will get Bo out of prison first, football or Bork? And will that be a good thing, or just another in a series of rash actions?

Musings: (Sorry, I didn't start marking things until I was halfway through the book!)

  • Every time I read the word "Bork" it made me think of The Muppet Show and the Swedish Chef. This is a good thing (to me), and possibly not completely unintentional.

  • I liked the first part of this book the most, because it was the part that really concentrated on telling us about all the ridiculous laws and procedures that have arisen in the future in the cause of keeping people safe. I'm old enough to remember when no one thought twice about a playground with swing sets on asphalt, when playgrounds still had jungle gyms, and when kids could still play tag at recess. (Yeah, there are schools that are forbidding TAG these days, for crying out loud, including California and Massachusetts.) Guess what? Even though we occasionally fell and scraped a knee (or even broke an arm), we survived to tell the tale and our parents didn't think it was a calamity. They just figured it was just something that occasionally happened when kids played. And have you seen the warning labels on products today? "Caution: Will be hot when removed from oven." Well, duhh! Isn't that why we put it in there in the first place? Ridiculous. So I just loved Hautman's taking the overprotectiveness thing over the top like this.

  • A favorite paragraph: "I started thinking again about my last conversation with Bork...He claimed that I was innocent because my assault on Korlohs was an unavoidable consequence of my being human. But if that were true, then everything everybody did was unavoidable, and no one could be held responsible for anything. And if nobody could be held responsible, then who would build the roads and behead the shrimp and make the pizzas? And what would stop violent, undisciplined people like me from running rampant through society?"

  • Another favorite section, but too long to quote in full: pp. 212-214. Bo is talking to Bork. "I'm not happy with you, Bork." "Explain." "You almost got me killed." Bork sat back in his chair and regarded me through his sunglasses. I was pretty sure that behind them his gold irises were spinning. After a few seconds he spoke. "You appear to be alive." "So do you," I said." (Bork is an artificial intelligence program Bo created in school.) In the rest of the conversation Bo tries to explain to Bork what acceptable odds are when putting his life in danger. Bork doesn't quite get it. Fun.

  • How lame is this? It took me half the book before I realized how I should be hearing "WindO" in my head! I kept breaking the word into two distinct parts. Don't. D'oh!

I wasn't a particular fan of Pete Hautman's until a year or so ago. That doesn't mean I didn't like his books. I just hadn't read many of them. Then I read Sweetblood, which has an interesting take on (among other things) what vampires really are. Then I read Invisible, which is a completely different kind of book. I'd heard a lot about Mr. Was, so I ordered and read that. Another completely different kind of book (and a little mind-boggling, too, what with the time travel and figuring out who's who!). Then I read Godless. You guessed it - different again. (I mean, who thinks about worshipping water towers? And how many people could take that and make it logical and thought-provoking, as well as fun?) I enjoy the places Hautman's books take me, almost always with a sense of humor and always more than just a good story. Rash follows that path. In my book, Hautman is always worth a read.