K. M. Szpara’s Docile was the definition of buzzy when it came out in March. I didn’t know much about it, but like many others, I was intrigued by the tagline, fantastic cover, and early reviews.
I sped through the book in April. At that point, I just couldn’t sort out how I felt about it. I couldn’t even really verbalize what the book was about, much less my response, which was pretty charged. I knew I was fascinated and drawn in and alarmed and grossed out… and I wasn’t sure if any of those were in good ways or bad ways.
In the world of Docile, near-future Americans can pay off their crippling debt by enlisting as “Dociles” for a set term of (in essence) slavery. Their service to the “trillionaire” class is total. It is often sexual and/or extremely demeaning, so Dociles take a special drug that makes them happily compliant.
The book follows Elisha, a young new Docile, and Alex, the heir to the Dociline drug empire who purchases his lifetime contract. Elisha refuses the drug. Alex, who has a lot to prove, decides to train Elisha to be the perfect
The book is a strange mash-up of genres and tropes. Much of it is traditional slave-fantasy: graphic scenes of Alex physically and sexually abusing Elisha and Elisha’s changing perspective as he falls under Alex’s mental and emotional control. But about halfway through, the story shifts. It becomes a dystopian resistance story, then a courtroom drama, then a strange, melancholy breakup tale.
I let the book marinate in my brain for a while. I’m still ambivalent, but I’m comfortable saying that mostly, those reactions were in the bad way.
I can’t let go of the feeling that there are some really interesting things happening in Docile. Somewhere, buried in the indulgence, are some nuanced thoughts about the way capitalism demands more than simple labor from the most vulnerable. I was really affected by Elisha’s struggle to find the right words for his experience and the novel’s compassion for him as a victim who continually makes dumb choices.
But the basic premise and world-building are so astoundingly thoughtless that I can’t take any of it seriously. How can I call anything in this book “sophisticated” when it has no interest in engaging with the historical and racial context of its subject matter? For some thoughtful discussions of Docile‘s conspicuous avoidance of America’s actual relationship with slavery, read Alexandria Brown’s review and this discussion on Stitch’s Media Mix.