The House of the Scorpion is an adolescent novel that follows the life of Matteo Alacran, a genetic clone of the infamous and wealthy opium dealer El Patron. The novel is set in an undetermined future time when an entire swath of land between Mexico (called Aztlan in the novel) and the United States has been turned over to drug dealers who mass-produce opium. Their "country" is aptly named Opium, nicknamed Dreamland, and is reigned over by El Patron. El Patron started poor but slowly established power and wealth through his drug trade, rising in the ranks of the cartel. In a deal when he promised to patrol the borders between the two countries with his own crew of border men (called the Farm Patrol), he was gifted the conflict-ridden portion of land between Mexico and the United States and left alone to trade opium throughout the world as long as he kept the borders under control. El Patron manages his opium fields through the use of "eejits," who are human beings with computer chips implanted into their brains. This makes the humans ideal slave workers because the computer chips suppress all human instincts and simply program them to work tirelessly and without complaint.
For years, El Patron used cloning to produce replacement body parts for himself, extending his natural life. At the beginning of the novel, he is turning 143 years old. The clones are created in petri dishes in a lab and then implanted into the wombs of cows where they grow until they are "harvested" and used for their body parts. Usually, their brains are immediately handicapped so that they are not capable of reaching full human potential; this is touted as the humane way to separate humans from clones and makes it easier to harvest the clones for their body parts when needed.
El Patron, however, keeps at least one clone safe from such drastic handicapping measures, and that is where Matteo Alacran's life begins. El Patron has granted him a "normal" life so that he can have an undisturbed childhood, which El Patron never had. Everyone in the household detests clones, and El Patron also enjoys the disgust and discomfort it causes others. Plus, keeping one clone normal allows that clone's heart to develop normally and healthily—it is the clone's heart that El Patron is truly after. Matteo is El Patron's ninth normal clone, and he is slated to eventually be a heart donor for the old man.
Matteo is unaware of his dire fate for most of his life. When the novel introduces him, he six years old and living in a small hut in the middle of El Patron's poppy fields. His caretaker is Celia, a cook in El Patron's household. Celia is fond of Matt and keeps him locked in the hut so that the cruel members of the household do not discover him and try to harm him. Matt must be kept healthy and alive for El Patron, so until this point in time, Matt has lived a sheltered, secluded, and rather happy life in the hut with Celia. He reads books, watches television, and spends time drawing and imagining life outside the walls of his home.
One day, the children of the Alacran household are out playing and they discover Matt's hut. In a desperate attempt to connect with other people, Matt breaks the window and jumps out to talk and play with them. In the process, he cuts himself badly on the broken glass and is taken to the main household. The entire family discovers who he is and promptly rejects him, calling him an animal. This is the first time that Matteo realizes that he is...
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- Critical Essays