Tuesday, March 20, 2012
If You're Sick of Hunger Games Hype . . .
As someone who did like The Hunger Games, I will second that recommendation right here. In fact, I'll go further. I think you might like The House of the Scorpion even if you hated The Hunger Games. You might like The House of the Scorpion even if, just to spite all the hype, you refuse to ever read The Hunger Games for as long as you live.
What the two books have in common is actually pretty superficial. They're both about a near future dystopic North America. They both have something to do with human gene manipulation. And in both books fancy people fly around in hovercrafts. That's pretty much it. And on the genetic manipulation front there are more differences than similarities. The Hunger Games uses human genetic engineering in a sensationalist fashion, to populate the novel with b-movie half-human-half-reptile-wolf-thing horror monsters, as if a story about children fighting to the death weren't scary enough. The Hunger Games series, in my opinion is weaker for the genetic mutant stuff. The story doesn't in any way depend on it, and as much as I liked the books, I found myself rolling my eyes whenever the "mutts" showed up.
The House of the Scorpion is about a human clone--a far more realistic possibility than human-animal hybrids. For the first several years of his life, the clone, Matteo Alacran is raised in a small house in an opium field isolated from everyone except for his care-taker, Celia. When he is discovered living there by some other children, he is overwhelmed with a desire to be with them and he escapes through a broken window, injuring himself in the process. He's taken to a doctor in the "Big House" and is treated well until it's discovered that he has a tattoo on his foot that reads "Property of the Alacran Estate." This tattoo marks him as a clone. Clones are hated, and considered non-human livestock. Matt is thrown into a pen to live like an animal until he is discovered and saved by the man from whom he was cloned: El Patron, the head of the Alcaran family and a drug king and ruler of the country of Opium which exists as a strip of opium farms between Mexico (now called Aztlan) and the United States. While nearly everyone else continues to revile him, El Patron protects Matt from others mistreatment and treats him like a treasured child, lavishing him with gifts and giving him a top notch education. Most clones, he learns, aren't so lucky. Their brains are deliberately damaged and they are raised as animals or worse, as Matt was before his rescue. So while Matt considers himself a non-human, he also believes he's being prepared to serve a special purpose.
El Patron and the Alcaran family farm opium by capturing people trying to cross from Aztlan to the United States, or vice versa, and implanting them with devices that make them eejits, zombie-like people incapable of independent thought, who can only obey orders. The punishment for going against El Patron's will is to be turned into an eejit.
This is the environment in which Matt grows up. The book follows Matt's painful struggle to understand the truth about his own origins, to clearly see the evil nature of the man who "saved" him, and to gain control over his own destiny; it follows his hope for escape not merely from the country of Opium, but from the label of "clone" as well. The House of the Scorpion is a gripping read, but it is a thoughtful one as well.
It's not a perfect book. Near the end Farmer shows us a communist style dictatorship that is as bad as the dictatorship of the Alcaran's. It seems placed there more as a social studies lesson than to advance the story, though it is partially redeemed by a number of great characters which it introduces.
On the whole the book is worthy of the many awards it received when it was first published ten years ago (National Book Award, a Newbury Honor, and the Printz Award) and if today it gets read by a few Hunger Games lovers, so much the better. But here's what I'd do if I knew I wouldn't get arrested: I'd bust into a book store and put up my own display. It would be labeled with a sign: "If you want to escape the Hunger Games for a while, try these!" Among the books I'd put on that table would be The House of the Scorpion.