The House of the Scorpion
by Nancy Farmer
The Plankton Factory
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
The plankton factory, where Matt and the other Lost Boys work, is a bizarre place for sure. Apparently plankton is the hot new food in Aztlán (um, ew?), and the factory is where they harvest it. The Keeper in charge, Carlos, thinks is the cat's meow, and tells Matt, "Plankton is the eighth wonder of the world. It's full of protein, vitamins, and roughage. It's got everything a whale needs to be happy and everything people need too" (28.35). Sure thing, Carlos. We've always wanted to share a meal with a whale.
Carlos might love plankton, but no one else seems to, particularly the Lost Boys who are forced to work at the factory. Plankton is described as the equivalent of gruel, or a gross sort of oatmeal – "It was sticky and crunchy at the same time, and it coated his mouth like rancid glue" (28.47). Yuck.
The fact that plankton is gross, though, makes oddly perfect sense. In your typical orphanage (we're thinking of those in Oliver Twist or Annie), the orphans are always eating gruel and being worked to death by overbearing adults. So when we read about plankton, we're not surprised that that's the Lost Boys' daily meal. We are, however, nauseated. Our heart goes out to their stomachs.
Plankton also helps us understand just how much of a wasteland the world has become in the future. Let's let our resident plankton expert Carlos explain:
"That's the Gulf of California," said Carlos, shading his eyes as he followed Matt's gaze.
"Are there whales in it?" Matt asked.
"They'd have to bring their own bathtubs," a boy said.
Carlos looked sorrowful. "There used to be whales. Once this whole area was covered by water." (28.49-52)
According to Carlos, whales used to eat the plankton in the Gulf when the water was still clean. Only now the Gulf is a polluted mess (thanks in part to toxins from Opium) and the whales are all dead, and whatever plankton does grow in the Gulf probably isn't safe to eat. So humans have to make it themselves in a factory. Where'd all the other food go? Honestly, we're not quite sure, but we're betting that Aztlán's typical food sources are just as polluted as the Gulf. In this sense, plankton shows us just how changed and damaged this future world is. Residents of Aztlán are forced to make their own disgusting food from disgusting sources. We certainly hope we won't be forced to eat plankton anytime soon. Reduce, reuse, recycle, you guys – just in case!