Book Review: Docile

Posted: March 9, 2020 in Critical Hit
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Warning: significant spoilers for Docile

Trigger warning: talk of rape, sexual assault and sexual slavery

In a near-future Baltimore, Maryland where all debts are generationally inherited, 21-year-old Elisha Wilder sneaks away from his impoverished family to auction off their collective 3 million dollars of debt by becoming a Docile – a debtor who sells their labour to a rich individual or corporation, called a Patron, for a set term. Most Dociles choose to take Dociline, a drug developed by Bishop Laboratories, which renders them pliant, happy drones for the duration of their service, and which, once their time is up, leaves them with no memories of the experience. As such, a great many Dociles are used for sex by their Patrons: their sexual health is a guaranteed right, but their sexual autonomy is not. But Elisha, whose mother continues to act like an on-med Docile years after her own term of service ended, intends to refuse Dociline. The only trouble is, his Patron is Alex Bishop: the heir to Bishop Laboratories, whose family is pressuring him to prove that he can publicly manage a Docile as a prelude to taking over the company – and without Dociline to help keep Elisha in line, Alex resorts to other methods of control.

K.M. Szpara’s Docile is a complex, incredibly pacy book about which I nonetheless have mixed feelings. At first blush, it’s a gripping, emotional, highly accomplished debut that I finished in a single sitting: a queer rebuke of capitalism whose central thesis is an investigation of debt slavery, autonomy and consent. And yet, the more I probe at it, the more that thesis is undermined by holes in the worldbuilding; a mixture of glaring omissions and smaller slips that sit less easily with me the longer I have to think about them. At the same time, Docile is also an unapologetically sexual book, which I think is to its credit: in addition to putting queerness front and centre, it doesn’t flinch from portraying the emotional complexities and power imbalances of Elisha and Alex’s relationship, and makes a point of showing how sex is a part of that.

As someone whose primary exposure to queer romance and erotica comes via fanfic, seeing what I’ve come to think of as fanfic tropes appear in traditionally published SFF works is still a slightly weird (but ultimately satisfying) experience. When it comes to particular tropes, however, I’ve discovered that there are things I’ll happily read about in fanfic which I struggle to enjoy in other mediums, not because of any difference in the quality of the writing or level of darkness involved, but because the knowledge that a thing is fic as opposed to canon allows me to process it differently. Partly, this is the result of tagging, which works to reassure me that the author knows the dynamic or context they’re writing is fucked up and is exploring those themes on purpose; but mostly, it’s that fic, for me, exists at an extra level of remove from reality. A dark fic about a particular pairing isn’t the defining story of their relationship; it’s just one extrapolation among many. If it makes me uncomfortable, I don’t have to invest in it, because a plethora of other, gentler stories about the same characters coexist alongside it. And no matter how good or bad they may be, I don’t have to pass critical judgement on the themes and worldbuilding of such stories, because that’s what the canon is for: the fic is an escape from that, which means that I’m primarily here for the feelings.

But when the same tropes appear in an original, canon story, I can’t turn off the analytical part of my brain that wants to poke and probe at the background details, the rules of the setting, and judge how well they work. I have a greater desire for the narrative to justify its logic and decisions, because there’s no pre-existing enjoyment of a separate, existing story to act as a Because Reasons shortcut for accepting why these particular characters are being treated a certain way, or why their world functions as it does. To take some classic fanfic AU examples, when I’m browsing my way through AO3, I don’t need an in-depth explanation for how magic can openly exist in the real world, or a treatise on why every human person is either a sub, dom or switch, or a set of detailed biological diagrams to explain a particular version of A/B/O in order to enjoy a story, even if the writer feels moved to provide such information. Because it’s fanfic, I’m happy just to accept that The Setting Is Like This, even if it doesn’t necessarily make sense, and to focus instead on the characters. But in an original work – and especially in a work of SFF – those other details are vital: they’re the lens through which I’m meeting the characters for the first time, and therefore integral to understanding them properly. If the world or the plot is inconsistent, it can make the characters feel inconsistent – and that, in turn, impacts my ability to invest in them.

With all that being understood: Docile is a story about sexual slavery. For many people, this is, quite reasonably, a hard limit, and one I’ve discussed before, when reviewing C.S. Pacat’s Captive Prince trilogy. Though structured like a romance, with different chapters showing us the first person POVs of Elisha and Alex respectively, the ending isn’t a HEA; nonetheless, the main sexual, emotional relationship is functionally master/slave, and while that’s not the Patron/Docile terminology used in the book, that’s functionally what it is. That the vast majority of the book is spent interrogating the fuckedupedness of this relationship in particular and the nature of consent in general is certainly important – tags or no tags, Szpara understands exactly what he’s writing about, to the extent that the book itself has a trigger warning on the back cover – but even so, that doesn’t obligate anyone to be comfortable with it.

In order to control Elisha without Dociline, Alex establishes rules for Elisha’s behaviour. For his own sexual and aesthetic benefit, he also decides what clothes Elisha wears, gives him a set exercise regime and personal trainer, has him learn to cook and determines what food he should eat, sees him tutored in piano, history and languages, and – of course – teaches him what he wants in bed. If Elisha disobeys, there are three types of punishment: writing lines, kneeling on rice for a set amount of time, and confinement. Throw this all together, and what develops is an inevitable Pygmalion situation: without understanding the full consequences of his actions, Alex brainwashes Elisha into being his perfect boyfriend, someone who is wholly dependent on him in every way, and doesn’t realise what he’s done until he starts wanting Elisha to interact with him autonomously and finds that he can’t. That Alex doesn’t set out to break Elisha doesn’t exonerate him in the narrative: his initial callousness to Elisha’s situation is what causes him to set the rules in the first place. It’s only when Elisha fully becomes his creation that Alex cares enough to see him as a person and, consequently, to be horrified by how broken that personhood is.

As such, I’d argue that this section of the book is – at least in part – a thinly-veiled rebuke of the toxic BDSM “romance” in E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey. Like Anastasia, Elisha is a subby virgin whose body and life are fully controlled by a dominating rich man; but unlike James, Szpara is fully aware that this is an extremely imbalanced, unhealthy dynamic that doesn’t magically become acceptable because the parties have feelings for one another. Unlike Christian Grey, when Alex finally realises what he’s done to Elisha, he’s appalled with himself. He pays Elisha’s contract in full and sends him home – but Elisha, still brainwashed, doesn’t want to go and is devastated to think himself rejected by the man who’s become the centre of his world. What follows is a protracted, emotional aftermath: after a near catastrophe, Alex realises that, even though he’s the one who damaged Elisha, he’s done so in such a way that he can’t simply expect him to heal in his absence. Along with members of Empower Maryland, an anti-Dociline activist group, Alex tries to help Elisha recover – but when the Bishop family realises what he’s doing, Alex winds up in his powerful father’s crosshairs, leading to a climactic showdown in court.

Without wanting to spoil the novel in its entirety, Szpara does an excellent job of showing how Elisha and Alex come to reconcile. The ending between them isn’t romantic – which I think is the right decision – but it ends in a place of catharsis, with the potential for change in the future. A major part of why this works is the narrative acknowledgement that trauma, desire and identity are fundamentally complicated. Elisha knows that what Alex did to him was wrong, but he also can’t stop being the person who had those experiences, nor would it be healthy to hate his new self just because of its genesis. Instead, he has to negotiate: to figure out who he is on his own terms while still accepting aspects of his identity – his sexually submissive nature, his love of music – that Alex brought to the surface. Elisha doesn’t have to know with 100% certainty which parts of him are untouched by Alex and which are not; the more important thing is to like himself, to have autonomy, and to have that autonomy respected by those around him. Alex, in turn, has to learn about the blinkered nature of his privileged upbringing: how his staggering naivety has done harm not only to Elisha, but to others in his life, and how throwing money at a problem isn’t the same as understanding why it exists in the first place.

This is the heart of Docile, and the overwhelming strength of the book. The emotional intimacy of the narrative, the excellent pacing and the real engagement with questions of consent, identity and autonomy make it a fascinating read, and one I wish I could recommend without any reservations.

But.

The thing I cannot get past – the thing I kept expecting to find throughout the book, but which never appeared, and which I think is a baffling elision in a story of this nature – is the fact that actual American slavery isn’t mentioned. Not ever. Not even once. A story about slavery in near-future Baltimore – a story which features multiple black characters, many of them anti-Dociline advocates – doesn’t mention black slavery. I understand that debt slavery is not traditionally motivated by the same appalling racism that underscored the trans-Atlantic slave trade (though it can still exist within racist paradigms, as happens with a lot of people-smuggling), but the two concepts are still related, especially when it comes to the functional sale of bodies, and I can’t believe that no character mentions it at all.

Especially given that the alternative to being a Docile is ending up in debtor’s prison, the threat of which motivates Elisha to sell himself in the first place, it’s striking that the fate of such prisoners isn’t ever explained in text, either. Given that modern American prisons are literally run as businesses, with prisoners often working for a pittance to make innumerable goods for the American market – another toxic facet of the captialism Szpara is rebuking, which ensures that paid workers in those fields can’t compete with what is effectively slave labour – the lack of explanation about what they do in the world of Docile niggles. I don’t believe there’s any accurate way to discuss intergenerational poverty, debt and incarceration in modern or near-future America that doesn’t include an analysis of race and the systematic racism with which slavery was replaced, and as such, its absence from the text felt not only glaring, but broke my immersion in the worldbuilding.

In establishing how the world of Docile came to be, there is no mention of existing debt slavery; of how fines and fees are already used as a means to incarcerate poor Americans who are overwhelmingly POC. There is no mention of plantations or sharecropping (although we see that Dociles are used for manual labour), no mention of white supremacy (although the majority of the hyper-rich characters are white), no mention of the history of human trafficiking (although this is how debt-slavery frequently manifests itself in the modern world, with workers shipped overseas and promised jobs, only to find their wages increasingly garnished to “pay” for the cost of their transport, lodging and innumerable other things, thus keeping them from becoming independent). The only historical precedent given in-narrative for the Docile system comes from ancient Roman history.

Elisha only has an eighth grade education; Alex has been raised by bigoted trillionaires who view their wealth as deserved. As Szpara never states how far in the future Docile takes place, it would be wholly consistent with the existing narrative to establish – even if only in passing, via something said by a secondary character – that the history of slavery is no longer properly taught, leaving the reader to infer that neither of the protagonists understands the historical legacy of the system to which they now belong. The idea of this history being suppressed, leading to the cyclic perpetuation of an old wound, would’ve made the book a thousand times more powerful without any need to change the central narrative. But to include multiple black activist characters who never once mention real slavery while talking about their fight against fictional slavery? To include a diverse cast, but not explore race or racism as a factor in class and poverty, or to even so much as hint at explaining why that analysis might be absent in a crapsack captialist future that is otherwise extrapolated from our present reality? Feels bad, Scoob.

The lack of discussion around race feels most salient in the case of a black Docile, Onyx, who we eventually learn is only pretending to be on Docilium in order to spy on trillionaires who won’t guard their mouths around him. When Elisha finally starts to break free of Alex’s brainwashing, it’s Onyx who helps him safely start to explore his sexuality, identity, submission and autonomy, which means that the two talk a lot about boundaries and stress. In order to uphold his cover as an on-med, Onyx has been having public sex with other Dociles and Patrons, and while the story doesn’t go deep into the practicalities of this performance in any case, it feels like both a misstep and a missed opportunity that Onyx never mentions the personal, racial implications of being a black man feigning slavery to an audience of mostly white Patrons. Given how gross and dehumanising the trillionaire class is portrayed to be towards their Dociles, I find it inconceivable that racism never enters the mix – however far in the future the story is meant to be set, it doesn’t seem remotely far enough for racism to be so long a thing of the past as to never be mentioned – and yet, it never does.

The other such omission, which feels less charged than the issue of race while still being significant, is the lack of any reference to any religion, particularly Christianity. In a future America where Dociles are used as sex slaves, it completely breaks my suspension of disbelief that nowhere, not even in passing, is there any reference to Evangelical protests about sin and immorality, or how faiths of any kind reacts to the Docile system, and I cannot help but view this as a failing. Again, I’m not asking for the central narrative to be overhauled: it’s just that, in a setting which is meant to be politically and socially derived from the USA at present, in all its megachurch-having, faith-based political glory, it feels like a hole in the story.

There are other issues with the worldbuilding, too. Why, for instance, is there seemingly a practice of putting children and young adults into the Docile system? At the start of the novel, Elisha sells the family’s debt in part to stop his thirteen-year-old sister from having to do so; but given that Dociles are so often used as sex slaves, the uncomfortable implication is that paedophilia is an established part of the system. Similarly, we learn of two characters who were on Docile from ages 7 to 12, and who’ve been in therapy as adults to deal with the trauma of it. But how can children that young, even Docile, be expected to sell their labour? What could they actually do at that age to work off the debt? And given that Docilium leaves you with no memories of your time spent taking it, how would this impact child users, who’d presumably “awaken” to their former mental age once going off-med instead of developing normally? This feels like it should be a much bigger aspect of the novel – a foundational grievance against the Docile system for the Empower Maryland activists, if no-one else – and yet it’s never mentioned except in passing, as though the reader should be horrified by it, but not curious about how it actually works.

With all of these issues already in place, smaller gripes become magnified. Why does Alex sign Elisha to a lifetime contract when he’s only getting a Docile under duress and clearly doesn’t want one long-term? How is the sexual health of Dociles protected, as we’re told it is under law, when they’re sexually shared with each other and their Patrons instead of being sexually exclusive? Why, when Elisha’s mother’s ongoing Docile condition is so central to the plot, is her case the only one of its kind we encounter, instead of being one of many? Why is thirty years of continuous, 24-hour Docile labour seen as a generous contract for paying off a 3 million dollar debt, when this works out to an annual salary of $100k? Even with living expenses paid for by the Patron, this doesn’t seem like a good exchange. What other jobs exist, or don’t, and how does the Docile system change their availability?

Similarly, the fact that queerness wasn’t overtly discussed in the narrative, only depicted as normative, struck me as being oddly unsatisfying, given the context. Returning to the issue of my differing standards for worldbuilding in original content vs fanfic, I’ve enjoyed endless fics where everyone is happily out and queer in settings where, realistically, the opposite is true, and never raised an eyebrow, because the how and why of those stories is vastly less important to me than the characterisation. At the same time, I don’t believe that depicting homophobia or overtly discussing queerness is necessary to establish realism even in stories set in the present day, let alone the near future. But Docile is explicitly meant to be a dystopian rebuke of capitalism, and one of the weirder aspects of being a queer person living in a capitalist society that’s slowly being dragged, kicking and screaming, into queer acceptance, is watching things like pride events and rainbow decorations suddenly being monetised by corporations who, not so long ago, went out of their way to avoid being seen as For The Gays.

It left me wondering: how, then, is queerness marketed, perceived and understood in the world of Docile, and how would this intersect with other aspects of identity that the book doesn’t tell us about, but which must logically exist? We’re told explicitly that things still suck for disabled people, for instance: aside from medical debt and widespread poverty, Patrons are responsible for paying for medical care for their Dociles, which makes it much, much harder for those who disclose a chronic illness or disability to find good contracts. So if prejudice still demonstrably exists in the setting, then why don’t we hear about it otherwise, even when it must clearly impact the characters? Why are the awful Bishop family, who value lineage and legacy above all else, more concerned with Alex finding a man to marry or a Docile to manage than with his producing an heir? Where are the hypocritical conservatives protesting that having gay sex with Dociles is against god’s law while simultaneously arguing that the hetero alternative is just fine, because something something Old Testament concubines something? And why, when it’s clear that Dociles are treated like objects by their Patrons, do we never hear about the handful of rights they’re granted being abused or broken? Even if Dociles technically have the right to refuse Dociline, what’s to stop a Patron from forcibly injecting them and then bribing or blackmailing not to report it the next time they check in with their caseworker? The premise left me with dozens of similar questions, and while I wouldn’t expect to see all of them answered, the more social elements were left absent or unexamined in text, the more I wondered why the book was set in America at all.

I can understand Szpara wanting to have a tight narrative focus on capitalism as a metaphoric vehicle for discussing bodily consent; I can also understand his wanting to tread carefully around issues of race, faith and culture. If Docile were a work of fanfiction, I wouldn’t care nearly as much about everything he’d left out or the details that don’t make sense, because I’d already have a pre-existing, canonical context in which to situate the characters. An AU setting would be understood foremost as an excuse to explore a specific relationship in a new way, with no need to be self-supporting otherwise. But when you tell me that a story is set in a near-future America, that implies the use of our present reality as a starting point – and if major aspects of that reality are absent from the worldbuilding without any explanation, while other details stand out as being weird or contradictory, then I’m going to find it hard to buy in to the premise.

The Hunger Games is technically set in America, but in a future so distant that there’s no need to connect it to our present, let alone any deeper history, in order for it to stand on its own. The alt-reality TV show Kings was intended as a clear thematic stand-in for the modern US, but as it was set in its own world, it wasn’t tied to historical specifics. And there are any number of narratives set in fully science fictional settings – space stations, colony planets, ambiguously situated cities with familiar technology but no clear ties to modern Earth – that manage to discuss capitalism and other such social institutions without invoking the specifics of our present reality. Had Szpara chosen any of these options for Docile, the book wouldn’t feel remiss for failing to discuss black slavery, religion or anything else particular to the USA, because they wouldn’t have been a contextual part of the setting, but as things stand, the omissions really bothered me.

It’s frustrating to have been so captivated by the pace and intense emotions of a novel, only to want to smack the setting firmly upside the head. Which is why, to return to my earlier point about tropes and fanfic, I can’t help feeling that Docile is, functionally, written as a fic, and that while this does extraordinary things for the pacing and characterisation, it comes – in my opinion – at the expense of the themes and worldbuilding.

I don’t mean that as an insult to fanfic, which I love wholeheartedly; nor will I criticise any reader who, unlike me, is perfectly content to argue that the details of Docile’s premise are ultimately less important than the characterisation. Certainly, I can’t claim to speak for how a POC might react to the text, except to be certain that no group is a hivemind: as a white queer reader, I was more inclined to accept Docile’s lack of homophobia precisely because, even when realistically present in a narrative, it’s personally upsetting to me. As such, I can imagine that some POC might similarly enjoy the lack of racism and racial analysis in an SF story which still boasted a diverse secondary cast.

But at the same time, and without wanting to lay down any hard rules about who is allowed to write what and under which auspices, I feel more comfortable with Szpara choosing to remove homophobia from a (real-world, albeit futuristic) story on the basis that Szpara is queer himself, and therefore representing his own, very reasonable desire to not have to deal with that bullshit in his own writing. Choosing not to acknowledge racism and slavery, however, feels dicier for the same reason – it’s less in his lane, and while neither he nor I gets to tell any POC readers how to feel about that, it nonetheless impacted my enjoyment of the novel.

All that being so, while the ficreader in me loved the twisty, emotional heart of Docile (AO3 tags: rated E, modern AU: slavery, rape/noncon, dubcon, under-negotiated kink, abuse, mindbreak, suicide attempt, suicidal ideation, dark yet weirdly tender, the real big bad is capitalism and also privilege, Lex Bishop’s A+ parenting, hopeful ending), my SFF reader/reviewer brain wanted more from the setting than the book could provide, especially regarding the elision of historical slavery from an American slavery novel. I’ll be interested to see what Szpara writes next – on a technical level, his writing is superb, and he has a compelling grasp of characterisation – but while I’d still recommend Docile to others, I can’t do so without reservation.

Comments
  1. Ergative says:

    Thank you so much for this essay. I’ve been simultaneously fascinated by the discourse around this book, and also firmly aware that I have no desire whatsoever to read it (sexual abuse is a hard line for me). Your review is the most complete summing up of the issues surrounding this book that I’ve seen, and leaves me feeling as if I now understand its position in SF discourse.

    I really appreciate your distinction between the requirements for satisfying worldbuilding in fic vs. fiction. It’s a contrast that meets that ‘surprising yet inevitable’ standard: I’d never consciously made that connection, but now that you’ve articulated it, *of course* it makes perfect sense.

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