Rash is a satirical, partially science fiction (in the loosest sense of the term) partially allegorical tale of a future America written by Pete Hautman, in which kids wear knee and elbow pads to run, cars steer themselves, and problem children take daily medicine to prevent their bursts of “uncontrollable emotion.” The book is set in the year 2074 in the United Safer States of America. French fries are illegal. Football has been banned. And a very nanny-state kind of government has passed all sorts of laws to protect and keep Americans safe. Over twenty percent of the population is in jails, which have become factories. And they need to keep arresting people, for things like losing their temper and “verbally assaulting” people, because the workers in prison factories are the only ones who work at all anymore.
That is the setting for our young hero, a guy by the name of Bo. And the story starts in a rather predictable way; he likes running, he likes a girl. Said girl (who is really supposed to be a girlfriend type) goes out with another guy. Bo loses his temper and is sent to a McDonald’s-run jail for three years of making frozen pizzas. There, he gets roped into playing football (which has been highly illegal for decades) against other jails. His best friend is a AI robot he created himself. He learns how to run on ground without padding, and that The United States of a Safer America has to keep putting people in jail in order to run itself; a economical and social system based on prisoners and forced labor. (for example, Bo’s brother works on a road crew, a job that exists now primarily as paid labor).
Of course, this book is full of sarcasm; in a day and age when people have shut down entire playgrounds on the grounds of the possibilities of injury; parents given countless options in expensive gear to protect and shield babies from their environments, an increase in medication for social/behavioral problems, and more; it’s not difficult to see the bridge between our present world and that of Bo’s, and to steal from a bit of history, Ben Franklin once remarked, “would give up some liberty in order to obtain a bit of temporary safety and thus deserve neither liberty nor safety.” It’s strange to think that by giving up some of our right to be in danger for safety, sometimes we find ourselves in more danger than ever. But that could be applied to satire too, right? That some people are going to read this book and find it funny, endearing, enjoyable, and a host of other adjectives, but they won’t look at it and go, “oh dear, is that really the way our country is heading? Perhaps I should be more mindful of how much my life is powered by regulations or consumerism.”
Satire and sarcasm is so witty and delightful because it always contains at least a small amount of truth to it. It is by recognizing this truth that we are able to find in it witticism. But there’s something to be said for the themes of recklessness (or rashness; book title reference!) that we see in Bo, to that of over-vigilance. For example, the books namesake is that people think Bo is the cause of a mysterious rash at school, and so he is sent away. Really, the rash is caused by hive-panic, and is a manifestation of the students’ own fears. They are overly careful to the point of making themselves sick, while Bo is seen as the cause because he is not careful. It’s a strange line to balance upon; rashness versus self-control, hive-minded organization or true, anarchical freedom. Which do you choose?