by K. M. Szpara
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted February 5, 2020
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K. M. (Kellan) Szpara's debut novel, Docile, will be published in one month, March 3. I received an advance e-book from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. It's a difficult book to review, for me at least. There are parts I liked, others not so much, and I'm afraid I'm likely to offend quite a few people with some of my opinions. Some, mostly family, would probably be appalled I even read it. There has been a lot of talk the past few years about Own Voices, stories written by and about marginalized people. I think it's most often used in reference to ethnicity, but surely it would also apply for alternate sexual orientations and gender identities. Szpara is a queer and trans writer, and the two main characters in this novel are gay men. That doesn't bother me; I support gay rights and marriage equality. However, in this case it's not a marriage, it begins as a non-consensual domination of one man over another, although the domination is not just sexual. At its heart it is economic. It's right there in the cover blurb: "There is no consent under Capitalism."
Some might describe this as a dystopia, but I think it's more a logical extrapolation from current trends; today's income inequality taken to the extreme. Debtor's Prisons are back, but also a new policy, and a new drug, which affords those in debt a way to buy their way out of it. But is the price too high? Bishop Laboratories has developed Dociline, which suppresses a person's self-awareness and individual initiative, making them compliant to the wishes and orders of their Patron. To become a Docile is to relinquish freedom, to work and serve others for a specified period of time, then they are allowed to stop receiving injections of Dociline, return to their home, all debt forgiven. Of course, that doesn't mean they won't accumulate more debt. The tradition of marriage has declined among the poor, since spouses would be responsible for their combined debt. Better to keep them separate, so one can stay with the family while the other works off their individual debt.
Chapters alternate from the first-person perspectives of two men; Elisha Wilder, a poor farm worker living outside Baltimore, and Alexander Bishop III, current CEO of Bishop Laboratories. When Elisha learns his father is contemplating putting his younger sister Abby into the Docile program, he runs away and presents himself to the ODR, the Office of Debt Resolution. Alex doesn't approve of the choices of Docile candidates the ODR has presented him, asks for more options, which brings him to Elisha's profile. A person's contract varied depending on their debt, from one year, maybe three, or ten, which was how long Elisha's mother served, her term having ended about four years prior to the main action. The first thing that doesn't make sense is that Elisha accepts a lifetime term. He'd remain Alex's Docile until he died. Was the resolution of his personal debt, plus the added bonus of another $1000 per month sent to his family, worth that commitment? Why would Alex even offer that long term contract? The rules state a Docile does not have to accept a contract, they can search through the database for different types of jobs offered, different types of Patrons. Another rule is a Docile has the right to refuse Dociline, which Elisha does after beginning his service to Alex.
What's a Patron to do, especially one connected to the creation and production of Dociline, when his Docile refuses the drug? Alex is under a lot of pressure from his father and others in the corporation. Can he train Elisha to be a compliant Docile without Dociline? The answer turns out to be yes, which is one of the most disturbing things about the narrative. Elisha was shy and naive, had never had sex, had never even kissed anyone, although he admitted that when he did think about sex it was with another man. Alex is an egotistical, spoiled elite, very conscious of his privilege. He relishes the fact he has a Docile to train his way, to dress the way he wants, to act the way he wants, to submit to his desires. This is where I almost stopped reading. Rape, abuse, humiliation, graphically described gay erotica. I had to ask myself if I would have been as upset if the two people had been a man and woman, in either configuration of dominate/submissive. I'm still not sure, because we later learn that Elisha liked at least part of that, maybe not at first, but Alex eventually had him so well trained, Elisha would do anything to please him. The dynamic changed only when Alex realized he was falling in love with Elisha, being aware that would alienate him from his father, and the company, so he takes Elisha back to his family, and relinquishes him from his debt, even though Elisha had only served six months of the lifetime contract.
One thing that did make sense is the reason Elisha refused Dociline. The drup was supposed to leave no residual effects after a couple of weeks following the last injection. But Elisha's mother was still in a stupor four years later, able to do repetitive tasks, but only when directed to do so, with any attempt to converse with her yielding only repetitive, stock phrases. Why did Elisha think he could convince Alex that Dociline was responsible for his mother's condition? Why, after repeated abuse, did Elisha fall in love with Alex? There are too many unanswered questions, too many nonsensical decisons made by many of the characters, including an associate of Alex's who is actually working undercover for Empower Maryland to combat Bishop Laboratories and the Dociline system. How and why did Maryland (apparently the only state so far) consent to this abusive program? Of course, the answer usually comes down to money and influence, and the Bishops have that in spades. Government officials, and judges, are in their pocket, and they intend to keep it that way. Another complaint is how it seemed the narrative shifted to paint Alex in a more sympathetic light, just a victim of circumstances. Nope, I wasn't buying that.
The publisher is Tor.com. This would have made a good addition to their novella program, but at 496 pages it is bloated with too much equivocation. I couldn't parse the motivations of any of the characters, including a couple that Alex considered friends, and vice-versa, although they had previously been Dociles, and had every reason to resent him and the system. The basic premise has its appeal, but the creepy sexual dynamics is a turn-off. Only recommended for those who've read all of the above and are still interested.
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