Fiction Reviews


(2020) K. M. Szpara, Tor, £22.99, hrdbk, 492pp, ISBN 978-1-250-21615-1


It is the not-too-distant future and socio-economic inequality in the US has increased with a small minority incredibly wealthy and many working hard to pay off debt.  Even though debt is now inheritable to offspring, much does not get repaid so leading to prison.  However there is a way out: debtors, or their offspring, can sell themselves for years – or even the best part of a lifetime – of service as a slave servant or 'docile'.

Dociles might be used for any form of work including hard labour, as well as providing personal services as a seχυal slave.  However, dociles have the right to take a literally mind-numbing drug called docaline that renders them unaware as to what is going on and be submissive, or to refuse the narcotic.

Elisha's family has a three million dollar debt, this despite her mother having spent years as a docile on docaine.  Such a prolonged use of dociline has seemingly had a permanent effect on her despite years of not using the drug.  So when Elisha sells himself he vows to exercise his right to refuse dociline.

Elisha gets a good deal with his buyer both paying off the entirety of his family's debt as well as giving his family a discretionary monthly stipend of a thousand dollars.

Yet Elisha's sponsor is the trillionaire son and pharmacologist of the man whose family invented dociline: a son who has to protect his family's image and that of docaline…

At its heart, Docile is the age-old story of boy meets boy, boy loses boy, boy regains boy, but as the story is told in chapters with differing perspectives of both protagonists, we get double value.

This story also chimes with some current concerns including over inequality and coercive control.

However, what this is also is a hοmο-erοtic novel with a number of rather graphic seχ scenes that might not be to everyone's taste.  Whether or not this appeals to you is, of course, down to you but prospective readers will need to be aware that they cannot read this science fiction novel without this other dimension.

That this is so hοmο-erοtically graphic arguably distracts from the SFnal aspects: some readers certainly will be put off even if others are not.  Certainly, such graphic seχ scenes are unnecessary for the science fiction plot.  For example, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World with its seχual liberation and even the soma opiate of the masses, or Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale with its politically-driven seχual domination – both having these aspects at the core of their respective plots – managed to tell their stories without graphic scenes. Indeed some of the scenes – especially those later on in the book – were purely self-indulgent on the author's part as they did absolutely nothing to drive the plot nor to further any character development.

So the question is whether this hybrid novel will attract more readers or dissuade them?  This is a difficult judgement call to make and clearly – from the end-of-book acknowledgements page – there had been some editorial discussion and evidently the author got his way.  Indeed, this novel may well appeal to the minority gay section of the market, and here a sizeable proportion of a comparatively small percentage of the total market can still end up being quite a large number. So who knows how well this novel will sell: he might tap into some sort of cultural zeitgeist within those concerned with broader gender politics.  What can be said, is that though this is the author's debut novel he has written shorts before that have been short-listed for both the Hugo and Nebula, so he can write.

Given that slavery in terms of absolute number (though not proportion of the global population) has never been greater than it is today, given that wealth inequality gap has never been so large with some individuals owning as much as the annual GDP of some states, given that some multinationals are so big that they are seemingly above tax law, and given that coercive control is such a contemporary issue, this novel might have been socially very important.  Yet, for whatever reason, the author decided not to join these particular dots leaving that for his readers to do for themselves should they be inclined (as this is not the reader's job).

Further, there are rather obvious questions about the novel's plot circumstance that simply aren't addressed let alone acknowledged in passing.  Here, one obvious example is the likely possibility of the debtor confusing personal feelings of devotion with Stockholm syndrome.

At the end of the day, you'll either love this novel and rave over it, or you'll consider it unremarkable being an inept mash of two different and largely disparate genres.  This is something that only you can decide.  Fortunately, you are not on docaline and so you can for yourself.

Jonathan Cowie

See also Arthur's take on Docile.


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