One of the most highly acclaimed Young Adult books of the last few years, the House of the Scorpion also happens to be a damn good science fiction novel for any age group. It has already earned author Nancy Farmer several awards, including her third Newbery Honor, and lavish praise from almost everyone who has read it. I hope and expect that it will become one of the genre’s classics, to be mentioned in the same conversations as Madeleine L'Engle’s works and the more recent Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman.
I also expect it to be banned by a good many school libraries and church groups. There are people who would like to keep children’s literature safe and wholesome, with representatives like Big Red and the Three Musketeers, and the House of the Scorpion will not please them. This is a gritty and brutal work of science fiction, filled cover to cover with drugs, slavery, clone farming, murder and government corruption. It features a full cast of monstrous characters, both evil children and the adults who prey on them, and it spares no feelings in its depiction of human prejudice, narrow-mindedness and outright malevolence. It also fails to mark its divisions in black and white. For example, one of its most sympathetic characters is a terrorist who once killed twenty children with a poorly timed bomb.
But at its heart is a likable protagonist who starts out as the most innocent kind of boy, a six-year-old named Matt, who lives in a little shack surrounded by endless poppy fields. He has never met any other children. In fact, he has never left the shack or spoken to anyone but his caregiver, a Mexican woman named Celia. His only entertainment is a television that plays nothing but old Mexican movies, and the folk stories that Celia tells him.
When he finally escapes the shack, he is at first welcomed into a house full of riches, countless servants, and children who at first accept him as one of their own and want to take care of him. But as soon as one of the adults discovers him, he is cast out of the house like an animal, and the children look at him with horror. Matt soon discovers that he is actually lower than an animal - lower, in fact, than the servants and the idiot slaves whose minds have been all but deactivated. He is a clone, the lowest form of life in his newly discovered world. Almost everyone he meets regards him as a horrible, feral violation of the natural order.
But Matt isn’t like other clones. He is the clone of the drug lord who rules this empire, a man so old and evil that most people call him “the vampire” behind his back. To his face, of course, he is never called anything but “El Patron”. As ruler of the young country officially known as Opium, El Patron is powerful enough to flout the international laws decreeing that all clones must have their minds wiped. Much to everyone else’s disgust, he has created a fully intelligent clone that he dotes on like a son.
Or does he? It doesn’t take long before we begin to find clues that Matt’s prospects are not especially bright, no matter how many times the old man commands everyone to show him respect. Whenever El Patron turns his back, Matt has to deal with a household full of powerful and twisted people who hate him - including a malevolent little bastard named Tom, who becomes the bane of his existence. Worse yet, Matt discovers more and more hints that El Patron’s reasons for creating him may be darker than he imagined. El Patron, like the other lords of Opium, keeps himself alive with frequent organ transplants. When Matt begins to wonder where the donated organs are really coming from, his real troubles begin.
If I had to point out a flaw in this book, it would be that “Scorpion” is rather strangely divided into two wildly different sections. The first half of the book is all about Matt’s childhood, and his gradual discovery of the monstrous fate in store for him. Farmer draws strong parallels between cloning and slavery, and with very few changes, this story could have been set on an old Virginia tobacco plantation. The second half of the book veers off in a very different direction, turning into an Orwellian sort of dystopia. The clone/slave metaphor is virtually forgotten until the very last chapter, when the two stories are wrapped up in a conclusion that comes almost without foreshadowing. There’s no drop in quality - every part of this book is good - but the two halves are so wildly different they seem almost like different books.
Still, when both halves of the book are as good as they are, I have no real reason to complain. And you could look at this “failing” from the opposite point of view, and say that it covers twice as many interesting themes as would have sufficed. Looking at it this way, you get two cool stories for the price of one, without any of the filler that would have been involved if Farmer had tried to stretch things and write two whole novels from this material.
All in all, I give House of the Scorpion my warmest endorsement. This is Young Adult literature at its best, highly recommended for any age. If you enjoyed His Dark Materials, or soft SF like Le Guin’s or Octavia Butler’s, you will probably enjoy the House of the Scorpion.
The House of the Scorpion, by Nancy Farmer. Atheneum BFYR hardcover, 380 pp. ISBN 0-689-85222-3.