Clones. Zombies. Hovercraft. Drugs. Organ harvesting. Plankton for dinner. It's a mad, mad world, and we're just reading it. Luckily, it's also a totally exciting and fascinating world, which explains why Nancy Farmer's The House of the Scorpion was a run-away hit when it was first published in 2002. Kids, teens, adults, and teachers were big fans, and the sheer number of video English class projects on YouTube should be enough to convince you of that.
Nancy Farmer, the book's author, is a very successful Young Adult novelist, also known for her books The Ear, The Eye and the Arm and A Girl Named Disaster, among others. Her books are all very imaginative, and The House of the Scorpion is no different. In it, we read about a world of the future, where drug lords are in charge, clones are very, very real, and – it turns out – second-class citizens. Plus, there are zombies. Well, sort of. If that all sounds a wee bit scary, it is. The House of the Scorpion is a dystopian novel. That's a fancy way of saying that the book takes place in the future, and things aren't looking too great.
What's not so great? Well for starters, our main character, Matt, is a clone, so he's got some identity issues. Then add to that the fact that he's born in a country ruled by a ruthless drug lord named El Patrón, and things start to look even worse. Oh, and in this country, clones are seen as less-than-human, so Matt encounters prejudice at every turn. Will he survive? Will he triumph? You didn't really think we would answer that, did you? Read it and find out.
The House of the Scorpion is so good, Farmer managed to scoop up quite a collection of awards for the novel. If the National Book Award and the Newbery Honor are any indication, you're going to love it. And if you do love it, you'll be happy to know that she's working on a sequel.
Cloning and hovercrafts are surefire signs of science fiction (for more on this, see "Genre"). Of course futuristic worlds are fun to imagine, but Nancy Farmer had something else in mind when she chose to write about the future. Let's see what she has to say about it:
"Science fiction allows you to approach a lot of social issues you can't get to directly. If you wrote a book about how cloning is horrible, it would read like a sermon and no one would pay attention to it" (source).
This book definitely tackles a lot of social issues, from cloning to slavery to immigration to drugs. By setting the action in a science-fiction world, Farmer can entertain her readers without lecturing them. Sneaky, Nancy. Plus, it doesn't hurt that Farmer is somewhat of a sci-fi virtuoso. A lot of her work is set in the future (see A Girl Named Disaster) or in fantasy worlds (check out the Sea of Trolls trilogy), and her wild imagination helps her create some truly awesome worlds for her readers. The House of the Scorpion is no exception.
Have you ever felt like your life was completely out of your control? Ever had people make decisions for you - what to eat, what to wear, where you have to go, what you have to do? It can get kind of frustrating when you aren't able to make your own decisions. Well, take that sometimes-frustration and multiply it times a billion, and you get what it's like to be Matt, the protagonist in Nancy Farmer's The House of the Scorpion, who is a clone bred to be an organ donor. Matt's life is completely outside of his control in a lot of ways. He was created in a lab for a specific (and lethal) purpose, and for much of his childhood he doesn't have a lot of say in what happens to him. In fact, neither does anyone else around El Patrón, who rules Matt's home country of Opium with fierce control.
Of course, just because Matt has had a rough go of it, doesn't mean we have to care. He could be a real jerk. Or a totally boring lame-o. But he's not, and that's why we get so invested. He doesn't just sit around complaining – he fights back and refuses to accept his fate. He educates himself, he tries hard to be a decent person, and he makes some tough decisions while he's at it. All in all, he's not a bad role model. He's got flaws, sure, but we could all stand to be a little more like Matt a little more often.
Plus, even though he's a clone, and his world is a fictional future, Matt deals with a lot of the same things we deal with today: bullying, violence, prejudice, and poverty. There are people all around the world today who are trapped in dangerous circumstances at the mercy of criminals, war lords, or dictators not unlike El Patrón. So Matt's story makes us ask ourselves what we would do if we were in his situation, or what we can do to help those who are.