Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Microreview [Book]: Docile by K.M. Szpara

Sexy dubcon tropes abound in Szpara's debut, but the worldbuilding and engagement with the history of slavery don't match up

Cover design by Jamie Stafford-Hill
Photograph by Yuri Arcurs/E+/Getty Images
Content Warnings: Rape, physical and psychological abuse, torture

It's hard to figure out how to review Docile, not just because it's a book that's trying to be a lot of things, but because it subverted the expectations which I went in with. Having read and been uncomfortable with some of Szpara's short work involving dubious consent (dubcon), I was not drawn to Docile over its relationship promises plus without putting too fine a point on it, books with a lot of explicit m/m stuff are - in the words of Chuck Tingle - not my trot. What I was intrigued by, however, was the promise of a science fictional parable, with a searing take on a specific dystopian near-future concept, something that was going to take systems of late-late capitalism to an absurd point and draw some sexy-tough gristle from it. What I got? A hurt/comfort dubcon that drew me in to the central characters' growth even as I kinda disliked them (and it's still not my trot)... and which didn't support the level of craft in its worldbuilding that I'd hoped and expected.

Docile is the story of Elisha, a young man born into crippling debt which, by law, he inherits from both his parents. Elisha lives in a version of Maryland which has enacted laws around being a "Docile": a form of indenture to the super-rich in which people sell off their debts in exchange for almost any form of labour, while being drugged with Dociline, a substance which prevents them from creating memories or remembering any of the debasing, humiliating or traumatic experiences which might occur during their slavery. Elisha's mother has already spent a decade as a Docile, and has been brought back with her personality permenantly altered; now its his younger sister who is in line to be sold off to cover the family's remaining debt. In an act which is portrayed as more selfless than it perhaps should be, Elisha instead decides to take on the debt himself and sells himself off for life to Alexander Bishop III, none other than the heir to the business which creates Dociline. The catch is that, in order to prevent what happened to his mother from happening to him, Elisha decides to exercise his right to refuse Dociline: a decision which Alex takes as a challenge to emotionally break him without chemical inducement.

From here, Docile effectively plays out in two halves. The first half is Elisha's experience directly under Alex's control, and it plays out in a bunch of set pieces that feel pretty familiar even though I've never read anything explicitly classed as "slavefic" before. There's a lot of "breaking in", which Elisha feels deeply conflicted about (and let's be clear from an audience standpoint - it's rape, even if it's not violently forced at the first instance). There's the sexy party where some of Alex's friends "borrow" Elisha for themselves and then for their Dociles, because what's a super-rich party without a giant mindless orgy in the middle. There's a horse race which similarly offers an opportunity to dress up and humiliate some slaves, complete with riding crops and reins. And there's plenty of instances of punishment and control from Alex towards Elisha, even as Alex also tries (usually unsuccessfully) to protect Elisha from the worst excesses of his compatriots. Throughout the entire book, we alternate between Elisha and Alex's points of view, meaning that scenes in which Elisha is being tortured or abused are interspersed with scenes of Alex going "I have no idea what I'm doing and wow it turns out kneeling on rice for an hour was painful to this person whose life I control". Reading all of this feels voyeuristic and at times painful, exactly as it is meant to be: and as we watch feelings develop from both sides (and Elisha briefly goes home to a frankly awful reception to his family) its hard not to be emotionally swept up in the impossibility of them being together nicely, even as we also want to smother privileged shitbag Alex under his own goosedown pillows.

That's not to say that the characters in Docile are super compelling. Elisha, in particular, starts off with very little personality apart from what living with Alex gives him. We know he has a sick mother, and we know that he's angry with trillionaires for perpetuating the system that keeps him and his family down, and that he is utterly fixed on a particular course of action which will allow his family to escape while sparing him from a total personality wipe (incidentally, we never find out what debtors' prison involves that makes it worse than sex slavery or being worked to death while under the influence of drugs... but nope, not an option!) but his life experiences are otherwise kept close to the chest. In particular, Elisha is written as having had no sexual experience before meeting Alex, which I assume is for genre trope purposes but was an element that actively frustrated me. Without having any sort of assertive personality or quirks to lose, Elisha's transformation into a brainwashed non-Dociline docile is pretty understated, and mostly takes the form of "learning how not to ask questions even when very curious about things". Its only in his recovery - the second half of that book that we figure out how unwell Elisha has become.

And it's that second half that particularly showed the cracks in the worldbuilding for this isolated version of Maryland. For *reasons* which involve (sexy) torture that goes too far, Alex decides to leave Elisha at the side of the road (well, his house) and drive off, like he's a puppy that's grown too big and boisterous and was possibly a bear cub all along. Elisha fails to cope with this, and its only through getting in touch with a network of anti-Dociline activists (who have always been in the background, generally making Elisha's life worse) who start showering their own resources on Alex and his family as an anti-Dociline legal case. Some characters who were active in abuse in the first half make a return in new guises, and one in particular becomes Elisha's close friend and supporter. In short, things stay messy and kind of gross if you think about them too hard, and the book continues to revolve around Elisha and Alex discovering they truly love each other even through one of them brainwashing the other. It's the master/slave dubcon relationship which stays at the heart of developments even as the narrative expands, and the worldbuilding suffers for it - because, honestly, the system of Dociles is hard to objectively make sense of. The central premise here is one that seems to start from "neo-capitalist slavefic" and then pulls the science fictional trappings around itself that it needs to make that work (self-driving cars, super-rich people enjoy orgy parties and slave races, butt plugs can be fingerprint locked, plucky small resistance conveniently focused only on the protagonist's problem), rather than being built up from first principles to the point where a fully-realised dystopian world can be seen through the boundaries of a dubcon master/slave story.

And while it's not what I expected, I wouldn't fault Docile for that starting point, if not for one thing: this is a novel premised on slavery, set in the USA, which has nothing at all to say about historic slavery, the factors that enabled it, and the future of racism in relation to the Docile system. Based on some of the writing around ethnicity, I suspect that the efforts made to rectify this were all along the lines of "make sure its really clear that Elisha is white" and there are duly plenty of references to his exotic freckly pale look. Whether that's enough to get this book off the hook for writing out the history of slavery is a big question, and the only way I can figure out how it wasn't a dealbreaker is that the kinky queer erotica rep outranked any concerns about how slavefic might play out when read with a different order of priorities. It's bizarre to me that, given how little the Maryland location appears to add to the book as a whole, it wasn't swapped out early on for a secondary world location - but lots of places have a poor countryside and a rich city, and calling the settings "Bone City" and "Dairyland" (to pick a terrible example) would hardly require much for audiences to figure out.

If you put that to one side and just strap in for the ride it's offering, Docile's an enjoyable book, that had me compelled to keep reading and surprised me with some of its midpoint twists, even as some of the elements on either side of that fell into a pretty comfortable, tropey pattern. I'm far less convinced that it's quite the science fictional groundbreaker that it wants to be, though that was always going to be a tall order to pull off. If its gay kink with heapings of torture and consent issues that you're after, with a rollercoaster of feelings, this is a fine pick: just don't go into it expecting anything other than that.

UPDATE 7 MARCH: If you've read this review of Docile, I also HIGHLY recommend this piece which further unpacks the reactions to this work within fandom, and the racist legacy of the "slavefic" genre: "Dealing with what DOCILE Doesn't"

The Math

Baseline Score: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 Characterisation and deployment of tropes that made me care about something I'm kinda not into

Penalties: -1 Worldbuilding doesn't do much beyond provide a shallow backdrop to the sex slavery; -1 Setting this ahistorical slave narrative in near-future USA is not a good choice, or necessary to make this story work.

Nerd Coefficient: 5/10

POSTED BY: Adri, Nerds of a Feather co-editor, is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy.

Reference: Szpara, K.M. Docile [Tor.com Publishing, 2020]