Sunday, April 17, 2005

The House of the Scorpion

Yesterday I devoured The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer. It's a young adult novel that won the Newberry and the National Book Award (among many prizes) in 2003. [For some reason, I have been really attracted to children's and YA fiction lately.]

The House of the Scorpion is set in an unspecified but not so distant future, where Mexico no longer exists (it has become Aztlan), the US is no longer paradise to immigrants, and a country called Opium has sprung up between Aztlan and the US, born of a treaty between the US, Mexico and the powerful drug dealers of the borderlands. Opium, named for its obiquitous poppy fields, is a feudal state; the most powerful of the lords is El Patron, Matteo Alacran, a 140 year old man who owes his extreme longevity to medical experiments using clones created in labs and grown within cows. Cloning is a fact of life in this world -- and highly regulated. By law, clones are no better than cattle. At birth, each clone receives a tattoo of ownership and a chemical lobotomy, which ensures the clone will remain properly animal-like. A similar chemical process is used to turn all ilegal immigrants unfortunate enough to be caught by Opium Farm Patrols into eejits, zombie-like creatures that can only perform what limited functions they are especifically ordered to do. Most eejits are then used to tend the poppy fields.

The protagonist of the The House of the Scorpion is a clone, but not an eejit, because as El Patron's clone, Matt is spared the chemical obliteration of his brain. However, being anyone's clone is no picnic -- clones are both feared and loathed by ordinary humans. We follow Matt from conception and harvesting through to age 14, and get to experience his bewilderment at his situation, plus his eventual acceptance of his condition. While it's not a cheerful novel, and many parts are hard to stomach, the ending is optimistic (but never pat). Farmer does an excellent job of showing the effects of this society (and its choices about technology) without resorting to preachiness or heavy-handedness. This novel is well-worth the time of any reader interested in cloning, enslavement, and the treatment of the weakest people in society. I can't wait to see how Farmer's The House of the Scorpion compares to Ishaguro's Never Let Me Go, which covers some of the same territory.

For more information:

  • Read an excerpt of The House of the Scorpion.

  • Here's another.

  • A biography of Nancy Farmer

  • Nancy Farmer's acceptance speech for the National Book Award for The House of the Scorpion

  • Excerpts from a Locus interview with Nancy Farmer

  • Another interview with Nancy Farmer, mainly about her African-themed books: "Growing up in a hotel on the Mexican/U.S. border taught me that good people are an endangered species that need to be protected at all times. I have a bleak viewpoint of all governments and dislike borders of all kinds."

  • Interview with Nancy Farmer, mostly about her new novel, The Sea of Trolls : "Nancy Farmer never intended to be a writer. Rather, the award-winning childen's author says, "I wanted to be an explorer . . . to go out and have adventures and have fun." Although she's no Christopher Columbus, Farmer has certainly had her share of adventures, from spending three years in the Peace Corps in southern India to living in a California temple with a group of Hare Krishnas. Eventually, she says, "I wanted to do something interesting, so I bought a ticket on a freighter to Africa." She ended up spending nearly 20 years in Africa, where she met and married her husband, Harold."

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