(2020) K. M. Szpara, Tor, £20 / Can$37.99 / US$27.99, hrdbk, 492pp, ISBN 978-1-250-21615-1
A very explicit look at seχual possession and slavery in a dystopian future. The tagline of the book reads, ‘There is no consent under capitalism’. This promises a potent critique of political and economic divisions. However, that theme is treated rather superficially.
The divide between rich and poor certainly exists in the near-future in the US. Billionaires have become trillionaires, while the poor have plunged into such severe debt as to face debtors prisons. The poor even inherit the debts left by their parents, so the poverty plunge can go on in perpetuity, generation after generation. Their one hope of escape is to literally sell themselves as slaves to the trillionaires for set periods ranging from months, years and even for life.
To spare themselves the pain and distress of hard labour or of becoming seχ toys for the obscenely rich, the slaves can take Dociline, a somatic drug that makes them unquestioningly obedient and forgetful regarding abuses they are subjected to from their masters.
The story centres on Elisha Wilder, who sells himself for life into the control of Alexander (Alex) Bishop The Third, heir to the family who created and own the Dociline drug itself.
Elisha shocks his new master by invoking the right to be enslaved without taking the drug, and much of the first half of the book is his Stockholm Syndrome brainwashing into accepting his miserable lot in life.
Problems abound with the premise and execution of all this. Virtually none of the seχ (with Alex sharing out his new pet with friends at orgies) is consensual, but much hinges on Elisha actually enjoying his rape victim fate and growing increasingly empowered by his treatment. His love affair with Alex is treated as a romance and their periods of separation are treated as tragic loss rather than liberation for Elisha. He becomes quite suicidal when facing prolonged separation from a man whose punishments include forced kneeling naked on grains or hard uncooked rice and being locked in a dark sound-proof dumbwaiter cubby-hole for hours at a time.
Though the book has extreme slavery fully reintroduced in one US city (Baltimore, Maryland) we see nothing of reaction in other states or from the rest of the World. This is particularly controversial given the US history of slavery which would surely generate huge levels of protest across the board if anyone seriously pushed to create this as a nationally accepted legal social norm.
In fact, we get only one minor protest group, a secret social welfare group (so secret that they hand out business cards). Elisha finds his jogging partner, cookery teacher, Alex’s apartment receptionist and another close friend of Alex are all infiltration members of this group, who at one point try to deprogram Elisha by having one of their own members rape him.
Given that the book makes light of slavery, its one important black character being identified only as Onyx only rubs salt (or rice) in the wounds.
None of the characters are likable. Alex is a monster, and though he comes to realise this himself, there is little indication of a desire to change. Elisha is naïve and pitiful, while their respective families behave dreadfully. Even the team trying to rescue Elisha have rather questionable motives and methods.
Elisha refuses Dociline because it apparently ruined his mother’s mental well-being after she herself became a temporary seχ slave years before, but he feels no apparent anger or bitterness to the family who control the drug. Alex refuses to believe his drug has bad side effects, and genuinely believes the drug wears off when no longer taken. As we never hear of another case of this destructive effect on mental well-being other than its impact on Elisha’s mother, his reasoning on that point at least seems valid.
We never see inside a debtor’s prison. Is a lifetime of being a drugged out continual abuse rape victim actually worse than that? We won’t know without some indication of what goes on in the prisons.
Elisha only announces his intent and right not to take Dociline at the public orgy ceremony as Alex is about to give him his first dose, causing the trillionaire playboy some embarrassment. Surely, given all the other contractual processing involved in picking a slave (like choosing a dog from a pet shop) the process would involve Elisha having to declare in writing in advance if he is willing to consent to taking the drugs or not. It could then serve as a legal contract deal-breaker before Alex and his associates sign their slaves out or not.
The seχual preferences and statuses of the characters is not a problem, but the blatant lack of consent and the lack of voices from real opposition, civil rights activists, the views of the (seemingly non-existent) LGBTQ and BDSM movements, and the general shadows of Fifty Shades of Grey, mar an intriguing premise. Sadly, we don’t get a critique of unbridled capitalism, but a sense that the author is claiming that being an unquestioning tranquilized brainwashed seχ slave to the rich and powerful can be romantic, fun and seχy. No it can’t.
See also Jonathan's take on Docile.
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