Farmer's novel is set in a not-too distant future in a world that feels just familiar enough to be unsettling and creepy. It's like our own, current world, just turned sideways. The action occurs in places we know, but they have different names, which throws us for a loop. It's a bit strange thinking of familiar places as entirely new countries, with names like Opium and Aztlán.
It's not until later that we learn that Opium is actually the American Southwest, Arizona specifically (a spot Nancy Farmer is quite familiar with, in fact.) In the beginning of the novel, we're just as confused as Matt when it comes to geography. Luckily, Matt stumbles upon a book, A History of Opium, that reveals some interesting information about his home country:
The MacGregors ruled the land near San Diego, and the Alacráns had a vast empire stretching from central California all across Arizona and into New Mexico.
Gradually, Opium changed from a no-man's-land to a real country. And its supreme leader, dictator, and fuhrer was Matteo Alacrán. (17.22-23)
We learn, along with Matt, that Opium is a country owned by drug lords (the MacGregors and the Alacráns mentioned above) sandwiched between the United States and Aztlán. Elsewhere, we gather that Opium is a dry, desolate place. The only plants that grow are opium and the expensive landscaping that surrounds El Patrón's house. When Matt looks out the window of his childhood house, he sees, "fields of white poppies stretched all the way to the shadowy hills. The whiteness hurt his eyes, and so he had turned from them with relief to the cool darkness inside" (2.11). That's about it – white poppies and shadowy hills.
Aside from El Patrón's estate, there is one place in Opium that gives Matt a nice, green break from all that desert. Tam Lin shows Matt a secret oasis, and from the way it's described, we wouldn't mind having an oasis of our own:
Creosote bushes and paloverde trees framed a small, narrow valley, and in the center of this was a pool of water. At the far end, Matt saw an enormous grapevine sprawled over a manmade trellis. In the water itself, Matt saw shoals of little brown fish that darted away from his shadow. (8.36)
The oasis is a lush place, filled with water and trees and signs of life, and it's here in this oasis that Matt learns some hard truths about Opium and its inhabitants. It's where he first begins to grow up, because here, he can truly be himself. Elsewhere in dry, miserable Opium, El Patrón rules with an iron fist. But here, in his oasis, Matt can retreat beneath the cover of the leaves and let his mind be free.
Anything has to be better than Opium, right? Wrong.
When Matt escapes Opium, he crosses the border into Aztlán, formerly known as Mexico. Aztlán, we learn, is a communist state (you can read more about communism here). Right off the bat, we can see that it's definitely not a cheerful place. In fact, its bleak, industrial scenes seem to come right out a Dickens novel (like Oliver Twist). In Matt's Aztlán, poor boys struggle to survive in what basically amounts to a prison work camp. Plus, as in Opium, things in Aztlán are dry, desolate, and dying:
Matt and Chacho walked over a landscape even more desolate than the area near the saltworks. There, if it rained, a few stunted weeds struggled to the surface. Here there was nothing except white patches of salt. Seashells dotted the surface, evidence of the living sea that had once stretched from horizon to horizon. (30.12)
Honestly, Aztlán seems a lot like Opium, only instead of the iron fist El Patrón, Matt must contend with the iron fist of the Keepers. Plus, we learn that Aztlán is suffering from a bad economy (we can definitely relate to that), so many of its citizens are struggling to get by.
But like Opium, Aztlán also has a place of refuge for Matt: the convent he escapes to when he flees the Keepers. There he finds safety, familiar faces, and freedom from the harsh rule of the Keepers.
There is one person who likes both these places (shocking, we know), and that's El Patrón. He's obsessed with his past in Aztlán, which, when he lived there, was still known as Mexico. He wants to recreate that past in Opium, so he keeps his country a hundred years behind the times:
"Opium, as much as possible, is the way things were in El Patrón's youth. Celia cooks on wooden fire, the rooms aren't air-conditioned, the fields are harvested by people, not machines." (24.47)
When Matt makes this discovery, it's a shocking moment, for him and for us. When Matt arrives in Aztlán, which has progressed far beyond Opium, he's blown away by all the technology, like hover-cars. Suddenly, all that cloning business makes much more sense and the true contrast between Opium and Aztlán is revealed.
There are a lot of aspects of the setting that relate directly to US History and current events. We've already mentioned the links to communism, but what else is there? There are a bunch of super-hot topics involved in The House of the Scorpion. We won't go into these issues in detail, but it's important to keep them at the front of your mind while you're reading. We're pretty sure Nancy Farmer was thinking about them while writing. So here's our list. Tell us, what did we miss?