It's the mid-2070s, and the United States has changed. It's not the USA anymore, for one thing. It's the USSA -- United Safer States of America. People are encouraged to wear helmets when they walk, beer is illegal, and football was banned for being too dangerous. The Child Safety Act of 2033 made protective gear mandatory in the school sports. And we're not just talking mouth guards in field hockey. Here's what students of the time wear to run the 100-meter dash:
... AtherSafe shoes with lateral ankle support and four layers of memory gel in the thick soles, knee pads, elbow pads, and a FDHHSS*-certified sports helmet. We raced on an Adzorbium track with its five centimeters of compacted gel-foam topped by a thick sheet of artificial latex. It's like running on a sponge.
Jail has been abolished. When people break the law, they are sent to work camps. Almost a quarter of the adult population is serving time -- not surprising, as breaking the law is not very difficult:
"Littering is only a class-four misdemeanor--you don't get sent up for that."
"Mr. Stoltz did."
"That was for assault. Melody Hynes got hurt."
"But all he did, really, was litter. He dropped an apricot when he was unloading groceries from his suv."
"Yeah, then Melody slipped on it and got a concussion."
"She should have been wearing her helmet. My point is, Bo, all the man did was drop an apricot and they sent him away for a whole year. A year of hard labor on a prison farm. For dropping an apricot!"
"But if he hadn't dropped it, Melody wouldn't have gotten bonked," I said. Sometimes my grandfather could be kind of dense.
The men in Bo Marsten's family tend to be quick-tempered (his father is serving time for road rage and his older brother for getting into a fight) and Bo is no exception. Though the Levulor he takes usually prevents violent outbreaks -- it slows his anger reflex (and, in an unfortunate side effect, every other reflex) by a tenth of a second -- but he occasionally "forgets" to take it.
Given his family history, it's not real surprise when sixteen-year-old Bo is sentenced to serve three years for a plethora of violations. (Verbal assault, physical assault -- well, he tried to punch someone -- and causing the outbreak of an itchy rash at his school.**) He is sent to Canada (which was annexed to the USSA in 2055) to work in a gourmet pizza factory.
This arm of McDonald's Rehabilitation and Manufacturing Corporation is a terrifying place, full of sharp corners, non-padded clothing, and people who have no qualms about verbally assaulting (not to mention physically assaulting) others. The factory is in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by a tall fence, beyond which are ravenous, man-eating polar bears. The warden runs an illegal football team.
If the team wins the Tundra Bowl, they will all be treated to early release. If they lose, they'll be Polar Bear Chow.
AWESOME. It's a sports story, a futuristic dystopia story, a juvie camp story and a story that mocks consumer culture. It explores Big Ideas, about government and free will and safety vs. freedom, but without ever feeling like a Frying Pan***, and without ever feeling heavy. It's rare for a book to be both thoughtful and thrilling.
Highly recommended. I'm planning on trying it out on older fans of Holes, as well as teens into Uglies and So Yesterday, Feed and Jennifer Government. Also fans of thoughtful sports stories -- I think there are a lot of Chris Crutcher fans who will enjoy it.
*Federal Department of Homeland Health, Safety and Security. Also, that description totally made me want to re-read Harrison Bergeron.
**Good thing that Those In Charge don't know about the possibly-sentient AI entity that he (oops) accidentally created. He could get twenty years for that, easy.
***Frying Pan Message Books: Books that are so message-driven to such an extent that you feel you are being battered with a Message-Laden Frying Pan. Duh.