________________ CM . . . . Volume XII Number 21 . . . . June 23, 2006



Pete Hautman.
New York, NY: Simon & Schuster (Distributed in Canada by Simon & Shinter Canada), 2006.
249 pp., cloth, $21.95.
ISBN 0-689-86801-4.

Subject Headings:
Artificial intelligence-Fiction.

Grades 9-12 / Ages 14-17.

Review by Jen Waters.

*** /4


You know that no American has won an Olympic Gold Medal since 2052? The best athletes are from South America now. Hell, we don't even have football or hockey anymore. We used to say "No pain, no gain". These days it's "Any pain, stop trying so hard". And look at what we drive. American suvs are so safe you could run spang into a brick wall and nobody'd get a scratch. But they don't go much faster than a horse, and they cost as much as a house. We don't even have a space program anymore. South Brazil has a colony on Mars, and we're sitting on our asses. You know what our biggest industry is? The penal system. We live longer than anybody else on earth, but we send a third of our men to jail. A lot of women, too.

In 2080s USSA (United Safer States of America), the world is a very safe place: everything is either illegal or figuratively (and sometimes literally) wrapped in a gauzy, protective barrier. Football, guns and body piercing are illegal, along with a host of other things; medication is required to be taken by most people; organic food is eaten; bicycle helmets are worn; and life spans can be very long, but, as Bo's grandfather states, "I think the country went to hell the day we decided we'd rather be safe than free."

     The country's economy depends on prison labour, and, as a result, people can be incarcerated for almost everything. Two members of Bo's (Bono Frederick Marsten) family are already in penal work camps, and it is almost inevitable that Bo will succumb as well, given his family's history of losing their tempers. In addition to several "aggressive" acts and school misdemeanors (such as not taking his Levulor, an anti-rage medication, not wearing the liners to his running knee pads, and throwing his helmet on the ground), Bo is also the trigger for a mass psychogenic illness at his school, a contagious hysteria that cause his classmates to get a facial rash for no real reason.

     Bo is sent to 387, a work camp on the frozen Canadian tundra 26 miles outside Churchill, MB. There, he is forced to make pizzas for McDonalds Rehabilitation and Manufacturing until one day he is enlisted by the crazed football coach to be a part of the highly illegal prison team. In a strange turn of events, Bo is granted early release because his Artificial Intelligence avatar, Bork, (originally created as a school assignment) takes on a life of his own and represents him legally (theoretically on a Pro Bono basis, but Bork is actually "pocketing" the money collected as a settlement for his hefty legal fees). Upon returning to school, Bo discovers the contagious hysteria has affected most of the students, and, after being given permission to graduate early, Bo decides to leave for South America, a country where football is both a legal and very popular sport.

     Rash is a well-written yet thoroughly bizarre book that comments politically on many things: the USSA annexed Canada in the year 2055; McDonalds, General Motors and Wal-Mart merged to create Rehabilitation and Manufacturing factories that account for most of the USSA's economy; and Philip Morris Wellness Centres are expensive and overcrowded. But while this is an intelligent and darkly humourous satire, its plot is all over the place and often cannot make up its mind. Pop cultural references are made by the dozen in the early part of the novel, which leads to a prison story that is also about football (this involves the "being chased and attacked by polar bears" component of the story), and finally the novel concludes with the mass hysteria to an imagined disease plot line. In the midst of all of this, Bo's Artificially Intelligent Bork becomes an independently intelligent creature much like HAL in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. And in keeping with the Kubrick homage, Bo also calls people "droogs," a term used by Alex in A Clockwork Orange.

     Hautman's literary skill is evident in Rash, but the story has less cohesion than two of his other critically acclaimed teen novels, Godless (which commented on religion) and Invisible (which addressed mental illness). Hautman should have limited his focus to fewer elements in this story because the novel's appeal will likely be limited to the older, cynical teen boys who have enjoyed such films as The Corporation, Supersize Me, the films of Michael Moore, as well as Max Barry's Jennifer Government, another grim yet comical futuristic novel with a less than subtle political commentary. Those who attempt to read Rash will probably love it, but I predict that it will be a relatively small group to begin with.


Jen Waters is the Teen Services Librarian at the Red Deer Public Library in Red Deer, AB.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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