The House of the Scorpion
Attitude: Take Care
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Published in: 2002
Age Range: Mid Teens+
Period: Near Future
Setting: Central America
- Matt Alacrán is a clone of El Patrón, rich owner of Aztlán, the Central American drug fields.
- Celia was a peasant in the same village as El Patrón and is chosen by him to look after Matt, his clone.
- Maria Mendoza is a girl of Matt's age, daughter of a senator, simple and friendly.
- Tam Lin is the bodyguard assigned to protect Matt, a Scot with his own sense of honour. Although a violent freedom fighter and paid mercenary, he is not without his own sense of honour, and grows attached to Matt.
Matt, a child clone of an artificially ancient rich drug baron, has to come to terms with the way the world sees him as he grows up and discovers the truth behind his way of life. In that world, clones are grown to provide spare organs for the very rich to live a very long life; menial workers are chemically treated to make them “eejits”, capable only of following simple orders with no thought of their own; and the drug barons, led by the feared Patrón, rule the world.
Literary: No great surprises in the vocabulary, construction or characterisation. A few of the characters have more depth than you initially give them credit for, but most are playing out their expected role. Seeing everything through the eyes of a boy growing up limits the potential of the narrative, but does in balance present you with a growing awareness of the the reality of the world, a movement from the carefully-guarded innocence of Matt's life in Celia's cottage to lives of those AztlĂĄn fighting for the rights of humanity.
Cloning: The single biggest issue in a book which rings warning bells about the possibilities of the near future. In Matt's world, rich people have clones birthed in cows, given an injection at birth which leaves them mindless and fit only for their intended purpose: to be a spare parts factory for their rich originals who want to live artifically long. Because of the enormous influence of his drug lord original, Matt is not injected, but is kept in secret. Since clones who survive are treated by civil and religious authorities as non-humans, Matt faces a hard time when he is discovered, protected only by the influence of El Patrón and to some extent by Maria, a girl his age who is determined to stand up for him.
Brain Control: Menial workers are usually converted to Eejits, mindless workers who will act only on the simplest and most direct instructions after brain surgery. They will continue to work until told to stop or until they collapse from physical exhaustion.
Drug Lords: At some point, the whole of Central America has been turned into a vast drug manufacturing plant, supplying the rest of the Americas, which are in a state of urban decay. El Patrón is the chief among the Drug Lords, and has influence over just about everyone, including Senators and other Drug Lords.
Religion: In an unspecified way, the religious authorities have classed clones as non-human, paving the way for the civil authorities to treat them as animals, usually using them for spare parts of experimentation. Maria, at a Catholic school, thinks that clones, and Matt in particular, does have a soul, but tied loosely to studies of Saint Francis (of Assisi) who “preached to animals because they had little souls that could grow into big ones. With work, even a sparrow or a cicada could make it into heaven.” This a deep subject, and while the book treats it with a certain respect, some care is definitely needed. In addition, you have a priest who approves an eejit choir and eejit bridesmaids, but who frowns upon Matt as a soulless animal. # Maria says that she has to do penance at her convent school for talking too much, and for sunbathing naked on the roof, but also that she wants to go into the town to work like St Francis did with the destitute, but that the nuns don't approve.
Corruption: Almost all the power and influence in the book is wielded by corrupt men, driven by money and power obtained directly or indirectly from drugs. Maria's aunt is an embittered alcoholic, her older sister worldly and self-seeking. When Matt escapes into the boys' working communities of AztlĂĄn even there some of the group leaders have their own agendas and beat Matt and the other boys until they run away.
Modesty & Decency: There are a few intimate moments between Matt and Maria, handled with some delicacy.
Overall: There are some ugly pictures in this book, but the effect is one of warning and disapproval.
Once El Patrón would have roared with laughter when Tam Lin described how his enemies in the US and Aztlan governments had been disgraced or met with strange accidents. Now he merely nodded. Such pleasures were beyond El Patrón now, and he had few enough left at the age of 148.
Tam Lin had treasures brought from the vast hoard of gifts the old man had amassed. El Patrón ran his gnarled fingers through a box of diamonds and sighed. “In the end they're only rocks.”
Matt, who spent much time by El Patrón's bed these days, said “They've very beautiful.”
“I no longer see the life in them. The fire that made men go to war for them is gone.”
And Matt understood that what El Patrón missed was not the beauty of the stones, but he joy he once took in owning fine things. He felt sorry for the old man and didn't know how to comfort him.
Sunday 8th February 2004