The House of the Scorpion


Nancy Farmer


Fantasy / Science Fiction


Date Reviewed:

May 16, 2021

saw The House of the Scorpion on the Amazon list of 100 Young Adult Books to Read. (Some books on that list did not strike me as Young Adult: The Color Purple? The Grapes of Wrath? Dune? Clockwork Orange? Those are not novels that I consider Young Adult, but as the saying (sorta) goes: Any book is a Young Adult book, if the Young Adult can read. I had never heard of Nancy Farmer nor The House of the Scorpion, but it won a bunch of awards (National Book Award, Newbery Honor Book, Michael Printz Award), so I gave it a try. I am glad that I did.

The House of the Scorpion is the story of Matteo Alacrán (Matt), a young boy growing up in a country which used to be part of Mexico, but now is a separate territory called Opium. Matt is a clone of the powerful drug lord, El Patrón, who rules the Opium lands. The reader knows immediately what grim fate awaits Matt - he is destined to have his organs harvested to keep El Patrón alive (El Patrón is 140 years old - this novel is set in a future that is several decades beyond our own - there are hovercars (though the hovercars are flown by human pilots instead of artificial intelligence) and desalination plants and the poor live on krill grown in giant vats. In the future, there also amazing yet terrifying advances in medicine, such as growing clones or implanting chips into the brains of humans and animals to make them obedient to all spoken commands). But Matt is just a small boy at the beginning of the story, raised by Celia the cook. The story tells how Matt grows up in this perilous world, and comes to realize his grim destiny.

Because he is a clone, Matt is considered merely as a soulless beast. He is alternately maltreated or ignored. Months of his childhood are spent in isolation under the "care" of the hateful Rosa. Matt is locked in a room, without any companions or entertainment or comfort or furniture. The floor of the room is covered with shavings, as if Matt were no more than a mouse in a cage.

I have never understood why people think a clone would have no soul. Identical twins are natural clones of each other, they have the same DNA, yet no one considers them soulless. Are babies fertilized at IVF clinics considered soulless? The hatred of clones seems illogical, yet a completely believable human behavior.

Considering how badly most of the people are treated in this novel, having a soul hardly seems to matter. When El Patrón discovers how badly Rosa is treating his clone, he has her converted into an eejit - a chip is embedded in her brain, destroying her will-power. An eejit can only act as directed by a human. The eejits are used out in the opium fields, where they toil ceaselessly and without complaint. At one point, on an outdoor excursion, Matt comes upon a dead person lying on the ground. His bodyguard explains to him that the dead man is an eejit who must have moved outside of hearing distance of his handler, and so never heard the instructions to return to the barracks. The eejit man must have stood there, unmoving, until he collapsed do to lack of water or died of exposure.

This dark novel has a tone of dread to it. The reader knows Matt is destined to be harvested for his organs. Matt comes to understand his situation, but convinces himself that the ruthless El Patrón actually loves him; that he is grooming Matt to be is successor to run the Opium factory. In one scene, Matt is in the hospital building of El Patrón's compound, drawn by terrorized shrieks - he finds a clone being prepared for surgery for another drug lord. That's when the hopeless reality of Matt's situation hits home.

Since The House of the Scorpion is a multiple-award winning young adult novel, it is probably assigned reading to students in many classrooms. No doubt the teachers then ask their students to write an essay on the "Nature vs Nurture" debate - Matt has the same DNA as the ruthless and cruel El Patrón, but Matt's nature is very different, despite the harshness of his upbringing. If their genes are the same, then there is seemingly no debate about Nature, all differences must be a result of Nurture. So despite the unforgiving circumstances Matt is raised in, his gentler personality must be due to his environment. But that is incorrect - just because two individuals have the same genes doesn't mean that both persons will have the same genes expressed. Chance events can cause a certain gene to activate one individual while it remains dormant in the other. Matt learns to play the piano, and discovers he has a talent for music. The people of El Patrón compound marvel at Matt's musical skills, because El Patrón has never shown any aptitude or interest in music. Perhaps this is because the young El Patrón was never exposed to any musical instruments.

One detail that seemed wrong in this novel is that there is only one Matt. El Patrón is 140 years old! His organs are in danger of failing at any time. If he harvests the heart (for example) of his clone, he cannot afford to wait 14 more years for a new clone to grow to puberty with a new set of harvestable organs. El Patrón should have three clones available at all times. Perhaps start a new clone every three years, and if his organs are not needed by the time he turns 21, just convert him to an eejit and put him to work in the opium fields.

Over all, this is a successful story. Farmer has constructed a scary novel full of dangerous people and frightening technologies. Farmer creates a likable hero in Matt, and mercilessly drops him into this cauldron. It is an interesting ride.