Nancy Farmer crafts an uncomfortably credible dystopian environment in The House of the Scorpion, mostly with just two speculative elements: viable human cloning (with clones treated as chattel) and an uneasy détente between the U.S. and major drug cartels, with the cartels offered non-interference in exchange for border control assistance. I wanted to not believe in it, but given the species history of treating human beings as if they weren’t, and the national history of unlikely bed-partners to achieve dubious ends, it didn’t stretch my credibility too much (and Farmer invests it with some squirm-inducing realism).
The novel portrays Farmer’s world through the eyes of Matt, the young clone — almost a sort of pet — of one of the nastiest and most powerful drug lords. Matt is an impressive fictional creation; at times he will probably push the boundaries of many readers’ sympathies, because he’s not raised in an environment that encourages many positive traits. His struggles to carve out his own identity make for compelling reading. (And there are other vivid characters for him to interact with.)
The House of the Scorpion has some structural issues, which I think largely result from Farmer’s attempt to address a moderately serious plot problem: the alert reader will figure out several important things before Matt does, so there are more surprises in store for Matt than for the reader. The last third of the book mixes things up significantly and probably offers more novelty to the reader. But while it continues the thematic arc of Matt’s life, it’s less well defined and leans harder on familiar fictional tropes than the rest of the novel. It also introduced some political commentary which at best seems irrelevant and at worst contrary to the main thrust of the book (the novel’s embrace of moral ambiguity notwithstanding). And the last few chapters felt distinctly rushed. If it were published today, I suspect there would have been editorial pressure to expand it into two novels. One of those hypothetical books would have ended with a godawful cliffhanger, but the second chunk of Matt’s story might have benefited from a richer, more thorough treatment.
needs more demons? despite my quibbles, I thought most of this was very well done, and I will read more from Farmer for sure.