Docile by K.M. Szpara
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
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.
Warnings: rape (on-page, and from both PoV); physical, emotional and psychological abuse and grooming; on-page suicide attempt; dehumanization; slavery
Note: This is not a YA book, and the depiction of abuse in this novel is quite intensive and can be triggering!
With a line like “There is no consent under capitalism”, you just know this book is going to be a tough one, discussing issues like debt resolution in a dystopian society, legal consent and choices, and the class warfare. The story is told from the points of view of the two people in the relationship – Elisha, the ‘Docile’ who sells his debt to the ‘Patron’, Alex, thereby having to be his
companion slave as per the contract. In this futuristic Baltimore, debt resolution is facilitated by the ODR, where debtors can ‘sell’ their debts in exchange for indentured servitude that can include anything and everything depending on who the Patron is. The illusion of choice is only in picking the Patron, and Elisha initially consoles himself with the idea that it could be worse than Alex. However, Alex, being the typical scion brought up in privilege and never having to confront it, takes Elisha’s refusal to take Dociline (one of his ‘rights’ as a Docile) as a challenge to train him and prove to his father and board of his company that he is capable of being responsible for the behavior of an entire human being.
The first half is rough, I am not gonna lie, because it is about how Alex manipulates him to the extent that 6 months later, Elisha is wholly dependent on him. The system and law allows Alex full control of Elisha, aside from the paltry ‘rights’ the latter is allowed to keep. Elisha is initially sickened by himself for responding in any way to Alex’s machinations, and soon he is chipped away bit by bit, as his self is stolen from him. And Alex debases him on a regular basis, enforces cruel punishments on him like he is a dog to be trained, cuts away all the personal protection a person builds around themselves. It is maybe worse from Alex’s PoV to see all this because he justifies it all in his mind, and also exposes the general thinking in their society of poor people who are in debt as sub-human. The on-med Dociline’s are mind-controlled slaves due to a drug, but seeing him psychologically reduce Elisha to that state? It was horrible, to say the least. Seeing Elisha respond to him like an adoring pet near the midpoint of the book, and the aftermath was heart-breaking.
“Despite how lost I feel, this situation is familiar. That someone is asking my consent as if I have a choice…. Impossible choices I’ve made, if you can call it that.”
The second half is in the aftermath of Alex realizing that he loves Elisha and horrified at what he has done to him. Elisha obviously can’t be in love with him because he never had the choice, but him being still in his thrall, and then being left to deal with it means that he becomes a wreck. His personality having been washed away, he has to relearn how to be a person, like having wants and opinions, demand privacy and space, being able to make decisions instead of just doing as being told. He is helped by another guy who knows what he is going through, and how to ‘deprogram’ him, and help him approach his sexual desires in a safer, consensual way. The second half is also focused on courtroom drama, as Alex’s father sues Elisha and his parents, and they all have to walk a tightrope to fight the case. The scenes of the procedure itself resolves a lot of the threads in the book, bringing up how people can be taken advantage of, how .Elisha finally coming to a place where he can acknowledge that he was raped, that he had no way to consent when his choices were taken away from him, that he was brainwashed into being what he is, and his current self is not just a natural progression of change in a person. Alex, for his part, has to reckon with what he did, what his family legacy means, and how he can fix things.
“I bought him clothes I liked, gave him hobbies I enjoyed. Tailored him into the perfect lover. He softened into the role, over time. It was like making a boyfriend in my own image, only he never refused me and did whatever he was told. In that way, he wasn’t a boyfriend at all—he was clearly a Docile—but I loved him like one.”
The ending gave me complicated feelings. I wasn’t totally satisfied with the end of the trial, because it didn’t really address the debt resolution system, but the Docile relationship which Alex took advantage of. Perhaps it is realistic in a way that the accumulation of power and evil in trillionaire families can’t be dismantled by a single case. Maybe I just like to have more of a win in my dystopias *shrug*. There was also the fact of how Elisha’s catharsis was brought about – I am not entirely sure that him being in contact with his abuser during his recovery, even if the latter is a ‘changed man’ or whatever, was something the people around him would condone.
Is it diverse? gay main characters; queer and PoC secondary characters; polyamorous families and relationships; written by a queer author
Received an advance reader copy in exchange for a fair review from TOR, via Edelweiss.
Releases on March 3, 2020
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