Docile by K.M. Szpara By K.M. Szpara

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There is no consent under capitalism

Docile is a science fiction parable about love and sex, wealth and debt, abuse and power, a challenging tour de force that at turns seduces and startles.

To be a Docile is to be kept, body and soul, for the uses of the owner of your contract. To be a Docile is to forget, to disappear, to hide inside your body from the horrors of your service. To be a Docile is to sell yourself to pay your parents' debts and buy your children's future.

Elisha Wilder’s family has been ruined by debt, handed down to them from previous generations. His mother never recovered from the Dociline she took during her term as a Docile, so when Elisha decides to try and erase the family’s debt himself, he swears he will never take the drug that took his mother from him. Too bad his contract has been purchased by Alexander Bishop III, whose ultra-rich family is the brains (and money) behind Dociline and the entire Office of Debt Resolution. When Elisha refuses Dociline, Alex refuses to believe that his family’s crowning achievement could have any negative side effects—and is determined to turn Elisha into the perfect Docile without it. Docile by K.M. Szpara

My general opinion of Docile by K.M. Szpara is that it was fine.

The writing was beyond excellent, lots of delicious word pictures. The indulgent decadence of the upper-class, the fine layers of dust over everything else, the quiet horror of a terrible system, the lush descriptions of this Maryland society. Love that for this book!

Docile wants me to take it seriously, so let me a downer for a few paragraphs.

Perhaps the real lesson of Docile is of tempering expectations. The hype around it, that gorgeous tagline, I was expecting something very different from what I got. I waited for this book to pop the fuck off, to shred itself to pieces, to point a finger at me before punching me in the gut. Instead, it existed in a very specific set of tropes, of narrative beats, and rarely veered off-course. If you’ve ever read more than one slavefic, you know the drill. Obviously, I knew to expect the tropes this book included, but I wish it leaned more into its other concepts. It has a lot going on in regards to ethics of labor, consent (obviously), capitalism, all that good shit. Unfortunately, it doesn’t dig exceptionally deep and rarely frames itself on a larger scale.

The world-building leaves a lot out, which creates a necessity to suspend your belief on…many, many things. For example: Furthermore, the reinstatement of slavery is contained to Maryland, and I’m wondering how the rest of the country and the world responded. If there was a response at all. There’s a substantial amount of logistical hand-waving, which is totally fine, but not what I was expecting from such an involved idea. A pretty big part of the plot is Elisha’s mother’s experience with Dociline, and, again, it’s difficult to believe that no one else tried to report or punish those responsible.

Also, I totally get that Docile is a sci-fi parable, but I couldn’t help consider current conversations on sex work and consent and drug use/addiction and money and SLAVERY. Do the Black people in this universe have no feelings about this at all? There are zero mentions of any form of sex work in this world, which…does it exist?

I JUST HAVE A LOT OF QUESTIONS, K.M. SZPARA.

Elisha and Alex aren’t the most compelling of narrators. I obviously sympathized with Elisha and rooted for him, but there was never a spark I connected to with either of them. Their development is also fairly predictable. There are several side characters who add different perspectives to the story and, frankly, I enjoyed the women so much more than the men. I was incredibly turned off by one side character, though.

I wanted Docile to go deeper. It landed on as horny on main with a vague conscience. There aren't really any consequences for wrongdoings.

Ultimately, I was of two minds. It was enjoyable for me! It was fine! If you like slavefic and the tropes it contains (rape, dubious consent, Feelings, Angst, picking out clothes, etc.) then you might like Docile. If you’ve never encountered these tropes, because they’re EXTREMELY THERE, or you’re expecting the narrative to do some serious dismantling, you might go elsewhere. Docile is for readers with very specific tastes.

Edit (10/20/19):

This little prickly thought has really been on my mind since I wrote this review, and I just have to talk it out.

If a white author uses slavery as a focal point of their book's plot, a plot that revolves around dismantling capitalism and consent in AMERICA, there needs to be a serious interrogation of like...context, history, trauma on the bodies of BIPOC. It was like slavery and racism never existed in Docile and that continues to bother me! It's bothersome to have two white narrators as the lenses through which we see the horrors of slavery, because UH...all of these things happened to BIPOC!

I get the heady, sexy, sharp appeal of Docile, I do, that's why I requested an ARC in the first place and I'm not trying to take the moral high ground on slavefic because that's a whole thing. But y'all...this book did not push hard enough into what it wants to be for me to push aside what it's left out. Docile by K.M. Szpara I received an ARC of this book from the publishing company Tor.com in exchange for a fair and honest review. Content warning: rape (also from the POV of the rapist), dubious consent, sexual harassment, attempted suicide.

Docile is set in near-ish-future Maryland, at a time when people who’ve amassed debt can erase it by selling themselves into (usually temporary) slavery. Most slaves take “Dociline”, a type of drug that makes a person highly obedient and keeps them from forming long-term memories. This way, they don’t have to remember what happened to them. For Elisha Wilder, however, Dociline isn’t an option. His mom had taken it while serving her ten-year sentence, and she never fully recovered; he’s terrified of losing himself as she did. Elisha is bought by Alex, whose family invented Dociline. When Elisha refuses to take the drug, the shocked Alex is determined to turn Elisha into the perfect slave without it.

Okay. Right. The tagline for this book is, There is no consent under capitalism. I think that gave me pretty incorrect assumptions about what it would be, and I guess that’s on me. In short, this book is standard slavefic.

For those of you not in the fanfic community, slavefic is… exactly what it says. A story that focuses on how one character is enslaved to another. Such stories generally come in two broad varieties: a (hot) master breaking in a new slave, or a slave recovering from past abuse (usually with the help of a (hot) new master who’s actually against slavery). Because slavefic is a proper subgenre, like e.g. farmboy fantasy, it comes with its own tropes. The master-who’s-never-wanted-a-slave suddenly needs to acquire one for vague “societal pressure” reasons! Crazy rich people parties where the slave is rented out to the master’s friends! (Alternatively, the master may growl they’re mine! and refuse to rent them out.) The master’s jealous ex who hates how obsessed the master is with their new slave! The recovering ex-slave gets to choose their own clothes for the first time and is overwhelmed by the experience! Bucketfuls of angst about whether the master-slave relationship can truly be called love! Buttplugs!

And Docile is, well… a very by-the-numbers slavefic. Because it’s a super niche subgenre, I’m struggling with how to word my critique for a broader audience. If you’ve never encountered slavefic before, then the broad question the book asks is quite compelling: is love possible when there is monetary pressure involved? If you do know the genre, then the book’s blandness makes it hard to take that question seriously. I’m just saying, I think it’s possible to examine the issue of consent without Alex taking Elisha’s virginity a couple hours after they meet and then sticking a buttplug up his butt to hold the semen in him for the night. But you can’t write slavefic without it, jazz hands.

(Side-note: I know you think I’m some world-weary pervert, but Alex “locks” the buttplug with a fingerprint lock and I was so confused by how that mechanism would work that I ended up questioning two friend groups about it. Which led to some fierce buttplug debate. With diagrams.)

Once I readjusted my expectations to slavefic, I also readjusted what I wanted out of the book. The goal of slavefic is, of course, Feels-with-a-capital-F. Unfortunately, I didn’t find any of the characters likable. I did feel bad for Elisha, but he spends most of the book as a severely traumatised slave in love with his abusive master; the feeling was more pity than sympathy. I was sincerely hoping that super-privileged, super-naïve, self-pitying Alex would get murdered in a slave revolt by chapter 7. I actually quite enjoy asshole love interests, like Laurent in Captive Prince or Cardan in Cruel Prince, but I do need them to be entertainingly awful. For me, Alex was not evil enough to like for his evilness, but took way too long to learn the lesson that Poor People Are Human Too to like for any other reason.

The other characters don’t get that much focus. Special shout-out, however, goes to Elisha’s dad, who bullies him for having learned fancy-pants big-city piano playing skills while being a sex slave to save his whole family from debt. Second special shout-out goes to the secret anti-slavery group who continuously ignore and undermine whatever little bit of agency Elisha has left as a slave. I keep stumbling on the trope of the out-of-touch activist who seems to bring as much harm to the people they want to help as their active oppressors. While criticising activists is valid, I guess I wish it was explored with more nuance. It often feels like a simple way to add “moral ambiguity” to a situation that’s pretty fucking black-and-white (i.e. slavery), and I wish the moral ambiguity could be added from an angle that didn’t involve throwing activists under the bus wholesale. (To be clear, ambiguity as in e.g. violent resistance vs peaceful protests, not ambiguity in regard to slavery itself.)

I think Docile would have worked better for me if the world was fleshed out more. People inherit their family’s debt and if they don’t pay up by a certain point they get thrown in “debtor’s prison”. (Not sure which point specifically: Elisha’s family is already three million in debt when he sells himself, but some guy who “only” has 200k college debt is also selling himself.) I think the point of the debtor’s prison is to make it clear that Elisha is becoming a slave “by choice”. But I never quite got what choice B is — what horrible tortures are happening in prison that make sex slavery preferable. Also, in general I struggle to imagine that it makes much economic sense to have a significant portion of the population be brainwashed slaves in a futuristic, post-industrial, presumably mostly-automated society. I suppose that means The Cruelty Is The Point, but that just didn't come across to me while reading.

I had other questions too. What does the rest of the world think about the US (or, well, specifically Maryland) bringing back slavery, this time with brainwashing drugs? What’re the wider ramifications within the US, seeing as how it’s a country that historically had institutionalised race-based slavery? (As I'm a white Ukrainian, I don’t think I’m the right person to pick this topic apart. But please check out this review that does discuss the book in regard to race, as well as this piece that discusses how reactions to Docile mostly avoid grappling with it in relation to the history of race and slavery in the US.) In a society that seems really great in terms of LGBTQ+ rights, I didn’t quite get why there’s societal pressure for Alex to be partnered with either a boyfriend or slave; what about, like, asexual people? Finally, the 200k college debt guy went to uni for philosophy — how has academia not collapsed yet?! (I realise Americans nowadays also go into severe debt for uni, but at the moment the answer to, “What’s the worst that can happen if I follow my dreams instead of studying something ‘practical’?” isn’t “Spend 10-odd years as a drugged-to-the-gills sex slave”.)

One last note I want to emphasise again is that there is a lot of explicit non-consensual and “dubiously consensual” sex in this book. A fair amount is kink-based (some of the kink-based play is consensual, with safewords). If you’re not comfortable with that for whatever reason, definitely stay away. This is pretty typical for slavefic, but one aspect in particular really bothered me. Spoilers:

Anyway, in short. If you thought the book was gonna be some in-depth critique of capitalism where commies pop out from behind the bushes and yell, “Ahaaa, but isn’t all work slavery because of the implicit threat of starvation otherwise, vive la Universal Basic Income!”, Docile is not for you. If you’ve read more than, say, three slavefics before and get the basic idea, Docile might or might not be for you. But if you’re curious about slavefic and aren’t sure how to navigate AO3, maybe pick up Docile? I guess? Docile by K.M. Szpara most publishers currently: oh well I guess we can start including lgbtq characters in our books, occasionally, maybe
Tor.com, intellectuals: they’re all gay. they’re all gay and we don’t make the rules Docile by K.M. Szpara Blog | Instagram | Twitter | Tumblr | Youtube | Twitch

Buddy Read with Jocelyn, Ness, & Sue! ❤ Docile by K.M. Szpara CONCLUSION; This book and in fact any writing by white LGBTQ+ people that is based off a racist premise from conception should never be praised or heralded. This is not a win for the community as much as it is a win for the racism already thriving within white LGBTQ+ stances and bodies of work. If you're going to market a book as making a critique of capitalism via slavery and rape as metaphors I would really hope there is 1) Actual critique of capitalism (besides platitudes and 101 analysis this isn't really present) and 2) there would be thoughtful consideration and care about the fact that you're using real oppression and trauma that happens to real people as metaphors for criticism when you could just write the criticism outright. The author and editor are both white men, and the fact that K.M. is trans frankly makes this even more disappointing to me as a nonbinary trans person. White trans people need to be dedicated to anti-racism in all that we do. K.M. and his editor have completely failed in this regard, and frankly seem like they just don't care. Anything of merit about DOCILE is completely undone by the very story it tells and where it comes from and the fact that both author and editor refuse to engage or acknowledge the racism inherent in DOCILE's entire premise. If I could rate this less than 1 star I would. I think we (white LGBTQ+ people) have a huge responsibility to make sure we stop perpetuating this kind of racism in our writing, as well as refusing to uplift this as a success, when all it aides is white supremacy.

[The only spoilers contained within are explicit examples of anti-blackness and lack of actual anti-capitalism critique. I think knowing what this book contains is essential for potential readers to get why this book is not okay, which is why they are not collapsed. Note I am a gay trans person myself, as well as a communist, and I am more than within my lane to critique this book. In fact calling out the racism of other white trans people is something I believe I have a responsibility to make sure I do constructively and as often as possible.]

I wish I could start this off by saying that we can all agree that slavefic is an inherently racist genre and trope. Unfortunately, way too many white LGBTQ+ people think it's fine because it's just roleplay. As someone surrounded by the BDSM community who occasionally practices it, I hate to break it to you, but there are several major things you should always initially be aware of as you get into BDSM. 1) Don't use the term 'slave' because it's racist and there are hundreds of other options for submissive roles. 2) Don't sexualize bigotry. 'Race-play' isn't a kink, it's just being racist and getting off on it. 3) Be safe and responsible at all times and instruct anyone you play with to do the same. 4) If you make NSFW/18+ content featuring intense BDSM scenes you need to make it clear that it is the BDSM practice, and not simply write context-less sexual assault scenes. These are the basic tenants of healthy BDSM, and unfortunately it really seems that this has not been placed within a book that markets itself as doing so.

It wouldn't be as overtly racist (though it still would be racist as the premise itself is unacceptable and a trope that we need to be retired) if the book ever made an effort at all to acknowledge racism and the racist premise behind the concept of slavery. In typical radlib dressing up as socialist fashion, the author also doesn't even seem to be aware of that SLAVERY STILL EXISTS IN AMERICA RIGHT NOW TODAY. The people we have imprisoned are overwhelmingly people of color arrested for non-violent crimes. All prisoners are forced to do taxing physical labor that if paid at all, is only paid mere cents an hour. America uses prisoners as slave labor to put out fires, face unsafe and toxic work conditions, and to clean up the messes the government feels only expendable lives should be used for. when you factor in the fact that 1) police disproportionately arrest and profile black people and either seek police brutality against them or incarceration for life and 2) that once you've been imprisoned you cannot vote you can clearly see the way America practices keeping black people enslaved; these actions are entirely legal for people to do. As a communist and prison abolitionist I am disgusted that there simply was not a trace of awareness about this reality in science fiction depicting slavery.

The way this book treats the very few black characters it has is also ABYSMAL. The first named black character is named Onyx which is such a racially charged choice I don't even know how to express how easy it is to not name black characters like this. The first speaking black character shows up in a scene where she tells the WHITE MALE ENSLAVED PROTAG I'm your ally, I'm here to help. The protag then responds Why would I need help?. The author's choice to then make the first speaking black character - a black woman - sneer and say Sorry, I didn't realize you enjoyed being a debt slave. is so irresponsibly racist that alone should eliminate any desire to want to engage this text with good faith. Do I think the author and editor and Tor all sat down rubbing their hands gleefully celebrating how they were so excited to be racist? No, absolutely not. However, this book is filled with an explicit disregard for race except to try and make a reader feel bad for the white male protag, and that is just nowhere near enough for a responsible engagement with racial trauma and how that informs the concept and practice of slavery. There is a reason why SFF mags have bans on submissions where Imagine if xyz group suddenly experienced xyz bigotry!?! and I 100% agree with that stance. Imagine if cis people experienced transphobia is a tired trope I'm sure every white trans person praising DOCILE has gotten angry with or boycotted before in the past. Yet when a white trans man says Imagine if a white gay man experienced slavery those same people are all for it? It's really disappointing all around. Not surprising, but definitely disappointing.

The plot surrounds a white middle class man selling himself into slavery because of white middle class debt to the rich. He is bought and used by an also white man who is a trillionaire. What could've been a really interesting story about sexual consent and power imbalances ensues. I do actually think that the book itself makes it clear that what the trillionaire does is unethical and wrong, and covers the protagonists journey of coming to terms with his sexuality as informed by this abuse in a way most people who write rape scenes never do. The later story also depicts him learning how to safely explore sexual relationships with someone who is his equal. It is honestly a shame that something which could've been very meaningful and an important example of recognizing complicated relationships with abuse in a framing that makes it clear rape is bad, is surrounded entirely by white obliviousness to the implications of every dynamic. When you also take a look at the way the book markets itself, it seems to contrast it's own message in how it's been advertised. It's being sold to people either as something that really critiques capitalism (it barely does at all) but it's also using the rape and abuse as a sexy aspect of the story in its marketing? That doesn't quite make sense to me. Consensual non consent can be great and all, but if the point of exploring BDSM and rape in this book was to make it clear what was healthy and what was not, why would you advertise the unhealthy aspects of the sexual parts of this story as sexy? It makes what might read as a sincere understanding of consent read as superficial so long as you can turn around to appeal to readers who find rape sexier than healthy BDSM relationships. If you're critiquing capitalism in your work, you could also at least make an effort to show you won't contradict your own morals/ethics simply to get more book sales. Frankly this really is not important to me the way the book's racism is, but it is also an analysis I came away with from reading it, and it's important to recognize that something with a tagline that constitutes an undelivered promise . . . the actions of the entire book's team do not reflect that promise at all.

This book makes me understand why so many white trans people were supporting Elizabeth Warren despite the fact that she 1) pretended to be Native American for 20 years and in that time period claimed she was making history for Native women and plagiarized Native people's work. 2) Walked back on her promise to abolish ICE, instead saying she would like to reform what are functionally concentration camps. 3) Walked back on her promise of Medicare For All to try and hold onto corporate votes and support. 4) Lastly, promised not to take Super PAC money and literally took that money two weeks later. These same people claim to be anti-capitalism, but don't actually practice what truly believing that requires. Instead, trans-liberalism and identity reductionism have infected the ability of most white trans people to engage with themself and their surroundings at all. Many inexcusable things become excusable for superficial feelings surrounded simply by identity, personality, and pop-astrology mindsets of thinking. That same sort of logic has been applied both in the writing of DOCILE and by a majority of DOCILE's readership. This book is definitely the more ! women ! prison guards ! mentality of gay science fiction. Anti-capitalism that is not also anti-racism. anti-imperialism, and anti-colonialism 100% through and through ultimately continues to uphold white supremacy. But I guess it's fine if you're trans or whatever?

More than anything, the publication and success perfectly exemplifies everything wrong with white engagements with transness and what happens when liberalism continues to inform your understanding of capitalism. DOCILE is the best example for the fact that people just don't f**king care about actually sticking to what they claim to believe in or what they claim to be against if there's some money to be made or something they can get off to. I would really love the author and editor and Tor to acknowledge and engage with these criticisms of racism within this text. They could donate the proceeds of sales to anti-prison groups, promote the abolition of prisons across America, and also provide financial support to Black and Native individuals in need across the country. They should also recognize the harm slavefic does by circulating and remove this book from being for sale, and take it out of print. Do I think this will happen? No. I unfortunately feel that they will probably spend their entire careers pretending no one ever had anything less-than-positive to say about DOCILE, and will continue to ignore what Black readers and writers have been saying about this book far before it came out. I would however really like to see some acknowledgement and actual effort to apologize, learn, grow, and provide reparations by those directly impacted by harmful and racist work like this. My advice to readers is to throw that slavefic concept out the window forever, and my advice to writers is to start taking clear stances against work and people who do and create these sorts of things. If you wanted something that engages racism, slavery, and anti-capitalism while being gay science fiction, you're definitely not going to get it here. 0/10 would not recommend.

- Vin (they/them)
@hologramvin
Docile by K.M. Szpara

Docile

Me every time I see Docile on my feed:


So, what's this book about
Docile is told in the near (alternate) future. Debt is at an alltime high when the Next of Kin law. Debt can no longer be erased by death. It is now passed down generation by generation. To deal with this debt, people have the option to become a Docile. To be a Docile is to be kept, body and soul, for the uses of the owner of your contract. To be a Docile is to forget, to disappear, to hide inside your body from the horrors of your service. To be a Docile is to sell yourself to pay your parents' debts and buy your children's future. The rich and privileged can buy Dociles and have them do almost anything they want... it's mostly sex.

Elisha applies to be a Docile but he is different. He refuses Dociline, the drug that causes Dociles to be calm and obedient. Unfortunately, his patron (I'm not sure that's the right term. Whoops) is Alex Bishop III who just happens to part of the family who created Dociline. And he is determined to make Elisha the perfect Docile... without Dociline.

Before I start, I need to warn you all, this book is forking dark. It covers a lot of heavy topics, most of them being rape and consent so if these have the potential to trigger you, please, please don't read this book.

I enjoyed this book for so many reasons. The first one is that it was super emotional. From anger to sadness and fear, this book was an absolute rollercoaster.

I also really enjoyed the science fiction aspect of this and honestly wish it had been explored further. For instance, the drug Dociline. I found it very fascinating and, even though it affected the plot, we didn't really get to see how it worked or any of it's backstory. I'd honestly love a novella/prequel.

Finally, I do want to talk about the darkness in this book. As a reader—nay, as a person who lives daily life—I am not going to try to avoid darkness. It's everywhere. I am fine reading about it. I just would prefer it to be handled or framed in a certain way. Szpara did a good job of framing it in a mostly good way. I won't spoil but the way things ended with an issue of consent, rape, and rapist was not my favorite. I don't think that it was healthy or realistic.

Overall, this book was fascinating, emotional and dark and I truly enjoyed (almost) every second of it!

Bottom Line:
4.5 stars
Age Rating - [ R ]
Content Screening -
Educational Value (0/0)
Positive Value (0/0)
Violence (5/5) - [Rape, physical abuse, confinement, toture, emotional abuse]
Sex (5/5) - [Rape, detailed sex scenes, sexual themes, BDSM]
Language (4/5) - [F**k, D*mn, Sh*t, C*m, Sl*t, D*ck, C*ck]
Drinking/Drugs (5/5) - [Alochol consumption, Rape drugs, Medicinal Drugs]
Trigger and Content Warnings - Rape, PTSD, BDSM, Torture, Physical Abuse, Emotional abuse
Note: This is a highly violent and sexual ADULT novel. It deals with rape and consent and should not be read by young readers or readers who are triggered by rape.
Publication Date: March 3rd, 2020
Publisher: Tor.com (an imprint of Macmillan)
Genre: Erotica/Science Fiction

***********



that was amazing. review to come!

**********

Me: Can I have an ARC?
Publicist #1: No
Me: Okay
Me: *asks another publicist*

***********

It's sci-fi and m/m romance.


MY HEART IS PALPITATING!


| Goodreads | Blog | Pinterest | LinkedIn | YouTube | Instagram Docile by K.M. Szpara I... truly do not know how I feel about this book. It was well written and compulsively readable and I can see what it was trying to do, but it definitely felt like it went on a little too long and lost a lot of the power behind it's punch. I also think marketing this book as a sexy BDSM dystopia was a... weird move? The book does have a few sexually explicit scenes, but they are definitely not the larger focus of the story and I almost feel like drawing so much attention to them will lead people to think that this is going to be a different type of book than it actually ended up being. Docile by K.M. Szpara I’ve seen this book compared to SFF version of Fifty Shades of Grey (blergh) as well as scathing critique of capitalist transactions, and so my curiosity was peaked. And overall it ended up quite different than I expected, although not that complete trope reversal and deconstruction I was hoping for.

You all probably are familiar with that frustrating trope of attraction seen in the huge power differential that features a sexy gagillionnaire engage in extreme control dominant/submissive master/slave erotic relationship with a younger poorer naive hottie, the controlling relationship presented almost as a quirk of deep love, and the inevitable softening of the stern rich dude under the irresistible stubborn spark of adoring submissive. There’s a happily ever after — because that stern hot controlling rich dude is obviously a great catch. Marriage and 2.4 children ensue, and all the toxicity magically dissipates because love changes all.

Szpara’s Docile initially seems to be headed exactly this way, but soon decides to take a different fork in the road. It decides to focus instead on the extreme toxicity and danger of a transactional relationship based on extreme power differential and lack of consent (because it’s not consent if you have no other option but to say “yes”). It shows the trauma of mental manipulation and brainwashing, the extreme Stockholm syndrome resulting from such conditioning as unhealthy foundation for a relationship.

What I like is that it’s actually NOT erotic fiction despite a few almost fanfic-like detailed anatomical sex descriptions — and I’m relieved because nothing about the interactions between Alex and Elisha is ever consensual, and it’s not glossed over. It does not flinch in recognizing these as not “steamy” romance but rape. Because some things should NOT be sexy, so don’t pick this book up if you’re looking for titillation or romance.

(And it’s also SO NOT science fiction, despite Tor publishing it. Forget Dociline - the mind-control drug used to “benevolently” create willing slaves in this debt-heavy near-future society, as aside from that McGuffin science-fictional elements are nonexistent. As is worldbuilding and such, but that’s not the point of this book.)

It’s an exploration of extreme toxicity of such a power/powerless arrangement and a condemnation of it, set in a vaguely futuristic world. And it actually succeeds in showing subtle changes in Elisha even before the full extent of his brainwashing becomes obvious.
“You see, Alex had no fucking clue what to do with a real human being. Someone with feelings and instincts and a family. Someone with agency. He only knew he had to gain control, to protect himself and to please his family and the Board. That’s what Dociline’s all about—that’s what the ODR is about.”
————
“The Docile system exists to give the wealthy control over debtors. To satisfy that need for control, Alex forced Elisha into submission by threatening to stop the stipend, stipulated in their contract, to his family. He used that leverage in a calculated fashion to establish rules and enforce corporal and emotional punishments. He called it training, but Alex brainwashed Elisha, slowly, over a period of six months.

You asked me if Alex changed; they both did. Alex changed because he began to view Elisha as a person he cared about while those around him viewed him as a cocksucking robot. Elisha changed because his behavior was forcibly modified.”

The problem is, Szpara then decides to stop halfway. Alex the gagillionnaire, despite being the CEO of a company manufacturing the mind-control drug and the asshole brainwashing Elisha into submission ultimately - of course - sees the errors of his ways through the power of love and seeing a mind-controlled slave as an actual human being for the first time in thirty years. And I cringed at that redemptive arc because it seemed to undermine the horror of the things he did. If Szpara wanted to make a deep impact with his book exploring the lack of consent in extremely unequal and unhealthy arrangements, he needed to be braver in letting go of redemptive arcs and righting the wrongs by the same ones who created the wrongs.

But hey, at least unlike the fad mainstreamed by that godawful Fifty Shades of Grey nonsense it’s clear on the harm and pain caused by such inequality in relationships. It gets that abuse is not love, and that recovery is long and painful — even though it backs of before it can actually take it somewhere good.

But don’t get tricked by it if you’re looking for SFF or romance or capitalism critique. But if you’re looking for a story about deeply troubled, pretty screwed-up relationship that purposefully makes you feel uncomfortable as you read it — well, on that front it delivers.

Rounding up to 3 stars.

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Also posted on my blog. Docile by K.M. Szpara DNF at 20%

I think I now have a pretty good idea of what this is, and I am not in a mood for more. A high concept slavefic erotica that belongs on Kindle Unlimited, not to be published and marketed by Tor as some kind of groundbreaking dystopia. Even if this novel delves deeper into the issues of consent later on, the whole tone of it is just off.

Rolling my eyes really hard at people who have found some deep meaning in this book, when it clearly is 450 pages of dubious consent smut. Like The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty, which, too, had slightly elevated writing and some big idea behind it, Docile is set to titillate too much to be taken seriously. Docile by K.M. Szpara
... despite excellent pacing and a gripping narrative, Szpara fails to address the history of slavery in America—a history that is race-based and continues to shape the nation. This is a story with fully realized queer characters that is unafraid to ask complicated questions; as a parable, it functions well. But without addressing this important aspect of the nation and economic structures within which it takes place, it cannot succeed in its takedown of oppressive systems.
-KIRKUS


this is the second attempt at this review, and it’s also being started before i’ve finished the book. full disclosure there. while we’re disclaiming things, i did read the arc version of this, so it’s entirely possible that the finished copy might have fixed some of the issues. the arc was from my good friend melanie, but as usual that hasn’t impacted my review of the work.

my main issue here, could be one of semantics. docile is blurbed as near future dystopian wherein people sell their debt and become slaves to the ultra wealthy. the novel does give some roman example of this practice [ i want to say it was called nexum, which ngl just made me think of the sex cult that was in the news about a year ago, but i digress ]. as a black person i can recognize that slavery has been practiced in various forms for various reasons all across the world., however, as the book is set in the united states, and maryland at that, i think the fact that reviewers are so quick to link what happens here to slavery is a little bothersome. especially when i can’t really think of a time where being enslaved was a choice? sure, you could argue that elisha wasn’t really presented with much of one, but he was. i haven’t done extensive research into what ye olde debtors prison was like, but seeing as elisha has grown up hearing stories about how dociles are sexually assaulted and generally abused and still thought that was the better option than being in prison was really hard to sympathize with. for me the concept of becoming a docile is really more akin to the way that indentured servitude was practiced in the early american colonies. even with indentured servants there were still rebellions that you could pull on to parallel the empower maryland movement, bacon’s rebellion in the Virginia colony could easily be pointed to as one. Just an idea.

semantics aside, i just never quite found a way for the logic of the world to quite make sense to me. it could be because i’m privileged enough to not currently have debt and it’s not a thing i’ve ever had to deal with. i understood the basic premise of the next of kin laws making debt intergenerational and something you inherit , but moving from that to a worldwide government sanctioned situation wherein the ultra wealthy would be allowed to pay off the debt in exchange for the wholesale indentured servitude of the poor is wild to me. it’s also odd to specifically enshrine in the law that the fifth right is to personal safety and then go on to spend the first hundred and fifty pages of the book describing multiple instances of sexual assault and torture. i’d also say that the drug docilline, regardless of how different characters view the side effects, undermines just about every right a docile might have and while i think it’s believable that a massive pharmaceutical company would be able to use their money to carve out an exception in the law, i think the fact that it exists at all is world breaking. but that seems to just be a me problem.

again, those are things that are clearly done to illustrate a parallel to slavery in america, and i find it incredibly inappropriate when the dociles are not property in the same way that slaves were. slaves were property. slaves did not have the seven rights that dociles have and so do try and do both i feel is misguided and offers a poor understanding of the places that your seem to be drawing from

[ though even if i could understand the world, the way the book seemingly sidesteps how even in this world people of color and black people in particular once again given the setting would be disproportionately affected by these laws is wild to me? we’re given no reason to believe that the hundreds of years of slavery or jim crow or red lining or the already prevalent wealth gap that exists in our current reality doesn’t exist in the world of docile. only then to follow a bunch of white people that is unclear how they amassed so much debt? ]

i failed to find any kind of commentary in the novel. i think that i went into it expecting the commentary to be the plot. a plot does sort of materialize toward the end of the second act and it’s loosely tied to some bread crumbs left at the beginning of the book, but when the book pivots to that it feels out of place if you ask me. i get that the drug and the near future with enhanced technology were the core of what made this a scifi novel, but it never really fell that scifi to me, it really read more like a contemporary literary fiction novel. the plot that i thought that fizzled at the end could have been better served i think by not attempting to play into a pretty standard scifi trope and continuing the character exploration the first half sets up. the first bit of the book i think is a really interesting place, but the second half just kinds of skips through time and put characters in a logical place for them to be given the storytype, but it doesn’t quite ring true for the characters that szpara crafted, even if they fit into an expected outcome given the circumstances. something about it didn’t quite click for me.



as for the final act of the book, i thought it was a complete trainwreck. i didn’t like the lawsuit, nothing about it felt like it fit. i know that all of the pieces were put into place and it wasn’t completely out of left field but it still didn’t quite gel for me. i think that a lot of the characters motivations, at least those involved with empower maryland, felt too stock scifi for the more character driven novel i wish this book might have been. there at least i think that the themes of taking down oppressive systems might have actually come to fruition. here it just seemed like a fun idea that not much was really done with. nothing about the story felt the need to have any of the scifi elements, and as i’ve already stated i felt that the drug really hurt the story more than it helped. at the end of the day the idea of the ultra wealthy not really suffering any consequences of their actions isn’t something the scifi setting really facilitated and that meaning is really only there if you reach for it. the final few pages of the book were really where the train left the rails for me. of all the ways this book could have ended that was perhaps the one that i was praying wouldn’t be it. most of all i had to read about these characters not really growing for so long only for them to wind up in the same sort of space they really could have occupied a hundred pages previously.



i do think that szpara managed to craft a book that is addictive. i wanted to keep going, even when i was revolted by the actions of the characters and even after i lost all hope of any nuanced discussion of the central conceit of the novel. i do think that szpara is talented and i would happily read more from them in the future, i simply think that like a lot of authors before them they simply did not have the range to discuss the full breadth of the topic. i don’t think that most readers will have the issues that i had with the novel. however, i do hope that with the book coming out that future readers can spend less time discussing the sex of the book but perhaps some of the other moments. i do think that a lot of the character dynamics and the way szpara wrote the middle of the book [ even if i don’t fully gel on how we got there ], was really well done. a lot of the triggering sexual assault moments do happen in rather quick succession, a lot of the trama suffered by elisha is established early on and in very memorable moments, but i think it’s important as elisha says later in the novel, those moments are not all that he is and this book is more than those moments.

for anyone that is looking to pick this up do know there are graphic depictions of sexual assault, general physical assault, emotional abuse. torture really. very dark. Docile by K.M. Szpara