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DOCILE takes place in Maryland, in a tautly set dystopia a few shades off from America today. The wealth gap has split the world largely into debtors and trillionaires. Inheriting their family’s compounding debt, debtors’ only alternative to prison is registering as a Docile for a trillionaire Patron, who pays their debts in exchange for services. Nearly all debtors who “opt” for this (it’s not an option when there’s no viable alternative, author K.M. Szpara is clear about that) are regularly injected with Dociline, a drug that renders them pliant, eager to please and devoid of agency. Once off Dociline, Dociles don’t remember their time on it --- this means losing perhaps decades of their life, but it’s positioned as preferable over being conscious for their enslaved period. Dociles are purchased by trillionaires either for hard labor, constant servitude or sex slavery --- typically, a combination.

The novel alternates between Elisha, a 21-year-old farm boy, and Alex, the trillionaire Patron who purchases him and also happens to be the CEO of Dociline, his family’s company. Elisha uniquely chooses not to partake in Dociline injections. His mother served as a Docile, and, though the drug is supposed to wear off, it left her a brain-damaged shell of herself. Much to Alex’s irritation, he has to “train” Elisha. The punishments range from writing lines, to having Elisha kneel bare-skinned on uncooked rice, to locking him in a cabinet. Rewards are predominantly praise, or sexual.

The novel spends its first couple of hundred pages establishing the sheer brutality of this arrangement. Alex chose to take on a Docile because his father and their company want him to prove he’s responsible. “Off-med” Dociles are virtually unheard of, but Alex sees Elisha’s choice as an opportunity: if he can successfully domesticate his Docile without Dociline, he’ll command respect.

"DOCILE is unquestionably sharp in many ways, and I love the queer, dystopian critique of toxic power dynamics on both systemic and intimate levels."

Elisha is initially resistant, but he had never had sex or a relationship before, so Alex’s manipulation of affection and sexual pleasure is deeply effective. Also, Alex has the power and will to send Elisha and his family to prison for life. Alex not only schedules Elisha’s life to the minute and polices every aspect, including diet and sexual release, he partakes in the common practice of sharing Elisha’s body with other Patrons, forcing him to service not only Alex himself, but his friends and coworkers as well. Through physical punishment, rape, public humiliation and conditioning, Alex chips away at Elisha’s very self.

It works. Elisha loses himself. He’s so brainwashed he defers to Alex for everything. He believes he earns his punishments, and he strives for his rewards. So when a resistance movement called Empower Maryland seeks him out, trying to take down Alex and his company, Elisha initially refuses.

Eventually, Alex realizes that he is falling for Elisha. And in that moment, he recognizes that he is falling for a mindless droid he created and needs to set Elisha free. But Elisha is so far gone, he physically cannot be on his own anymore; he literally would rather die. The last part of the book centers on holding Alex and his company accountable and rebuilding, though it emphasizes that there are no easy answers to violent capitalism.

Every reader will have a different take, and I know many who love this book unequivocally. But my discomfort is twofold, beginning with the dual points of view. It’s clear we’re being encouraged to understand that no one fully benefits from this system. Yes, Alex earnestly believes the Docile program is a societal good --- and chooses to use and sexually assault Elisha and other Dociles within it. Other Dociles do not remember the abuse, but Alex tortures and assaults a fully conscious, protesting human being. He sees it as his right. He sees it as an exchange, that a paid debt is worth Elisha’s autonomy. I will never be comfortable being asked to sympathize with a man who not only is himself a slave owner, torturer and rapist, but who owns the company that enables it and actively perpetuates that system.

Some reviews and marketing present DOCILE as a complex, sexy romance, and the ending encourages that reading, but it’s not: it’s a horror story, and the monsters are both capitalism and Alex. There’s nothing titillating about rape culture and assault. The tagline states, “There is no consent under capitalism,” and that’s certainly emphasized, but the dynamic is so inextricably imbalanced, and the sex scenes are explicitly rape. Literary relationships certainly do not need to be healthy, and I love complex queer narratives, but it feels incongruent to ask the reader to reckon with the degree of sexual, emotional and physical violence and blatant lack of agency, and still be open to the idea of romance. DOCILE doesn’t inherently romanticize an abusive relationship, but it asks you to root for one.

It’s clear that the graphic nature of those scenes are deliberate. Szpara’s writing is unflinching, effective and compelling, and serves to explore the beats of the power dynamic at play. I just don’t know if it’s worth further traumatizing queer readers and survivors for the sake of this point. There is one beautiful, healing scene towards the end, but it’s not between the central couple and it’s necessarily nearly clinical, as Elisha is finally learning his body.

My other concern is that this is a book about slavery in America that never reckons with race. DOCILE has been lauded as a queer HANDMAID’S TALE, and in many ways, that’s apt. It explores structures of societal consent. It explores sex as power. And, like Atwood in 1985, it fails to reckon with the racist realities at the core of its premise and this nation. Like slaves only a few centuries ago, Dociles are wrenched from their families based on corrupt legality, sold, physically and emotionally abused and tortured. Yet Szpara, who is not black and is so prescient when he’s critiquing one white level of capitalism, never touches this. He takes a very real premise and presents it as a love story between a white slaveowner and a white slave. I am a nonblack reader, so my voice is not an authority here, but this was troubling.

I have many complicated feelings that don’t fit here. DOCILE is unquestionably sharp in many ways, and I love the queer, dystopian critique of toxic power dynamics on both systemic and intimate levels. Many readers find the book cathartic, and that isn’t something that I can police. But I personally walked away uncomfortable at the graphic abuse, the abusive relationship portrayed as romantic, and the lack of racial consciousness within a slave narrative.

Reviewed by Maya Gittelman on March 13, 2020

by K.M. Szpara

  • Publication Date: March 16, 2021
  • Genres: Fiction, Science Fiction
  • Paperback: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Tordotcom
  • ISBN-10: 1250216338
  • ISBN-13: 9781250216335