The House of the Scorpion

Over the weekend I finished Nancy Farmer’s The House of the Scorpion. Winner of the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, and an honorable mention in several other major North American book awards in 2002, Farmer crafts a stunning tale of a future dystopia. If you’re interested in alternate history, general science fiction, or simply enjoy a great story, this is a fascinating book.

Matteo Alacrán is a clone of El Patrón, drug magnate in a small country called Opium, sandwiched between the southern border of the United States and Aztlán, the land that we call Mexico today. This story takes place at some point in the future when hovercrafts are a normal mode of transportation, and cloning and brain implantations are commonplace. Opium, however, is frozen in time for the most part, with few modern amenities, as El Patrón prefers being reminded of the simple life of his childhood in Aztlán. In the book he reaches his 148th birthday. Such extended old age is only possible through morally dubious surgeries and organ transplants. Matt is El Patrón’s ninth clone.

El Patrón has allowed Matt to become educated and musically skilled only to keep him content and docile until his body parts are needed. El Patrón doesn’t count on Matt’s allies, however: Celia the cook, who raised Matt as a little boy, and Tam Lin, the bodyguard who loathes El Patrón’s way of life and gives Matt the clues and tools he needs to escape to Aztlán and avoid certain death. Until his escape, Matt is treated by most people as worse than livestock; they don’t believe that clones are human or have souls.

Even once Matt reaches Aztlán, his troubles are far from over. He finds that hypocrisy and unfair treatment are not human behaviors confined to El Patrón’s domain, but uses his instinct for survival to keep moving. Matt is drawn into a plan by certain government powers of both Aztlán and the US to bring down Opium and shut down El Patrón’s empire. Matt is only too happy to help free the enslaved farm workers and end the unequal treatment he sees in Opium; through his own suffering he has developed a deep sense of empathy for those considered to be undeserving of happiness.

The supporting characters are detailed and very consistent. Each has their own back-story, and Farmer does a wonderful job of weaving these finer points in with Matt’s own story. It is chilling to read about Matt’s treatment at the hands of people who see clones as less than human. It is equally satisfying to read about Matt growing up to become self-reliant, recognizing the dignity with which all people should be treated, and finally finding friendship with his peers. Highly recommended.