I liked this! But it didn’t go where I was expecting it to and I had to think about it a bunch before I rated and reviewed it, which I think is ultimately in the book’s favor. If it was easily digestible, I don’t think it would have been worth much of anything.
Docile has been touted as a “science fiction parable”, and I think that’s an apt description. Certain things are purposely heightened (the wealth disparity between classes) and taken to their extremes, while other things (like racism) are absent all together. The central science-fictional element, the drug Dociline, is almost fairytale-like in its conception. It is a drug that helps to prop up a system of vast economic equality, which, by making the people who take it docile and pliable and unable to remember the (traumatic) things that happen to them while taking it, essentially makes them complicit in their own slavery (not that that word is ever used, because that would constitute an awareness that neither the general public nor the ruling class is capable of here).
This is a world where the wealthy are extravagantly so (they are all described as trillionaires and billionaires) and the poor are so poor, and debt is inherited, that people sell themselves regularly to trillionaires as “dociles,” the trillionaires buying out their debt in exchange for a period of ownership, where the person belongs to the trillionaire. Most people take Dociline to get through this time, even when the duties required of them aren’t deviant or abusive or even sexual in nature, because, surprise, people do not respond well to being owned by other people. The book also explores consent and power imbalances in great detail, as well as the way that inherent privilege can completely warp perspective. The overall feeling is of a system that self-perpetuates by having the rich and powerful act to gain more of both, and the poor bearing the brunt of the consequences.
What I most liked about Szpara’s approach to this concept is the way he purposefully creates characters and situations to explore the grey areas. The dual arcs of the book involve a poor man named Elisha (pronounced like “Elijah”) and the trillionaire named Alex who takes on Elisha as his docile. Elisha becomes a docile to wipe out his family’s immense debt and to prevent his sister from falling to the same fate as his mother. She was on Dociline for ten years, but a bad reaction to it has left her still acting like a docile long after she’s stopped taking the drug. The whole situation has traumatized his family, and he’s made a promise to himself not to take Dociline, as every docile has the right to refuse it. (They have other “rights” as well, which are supposed to make the slavery “okay.”) Alex’s family invented Dociline, and he is heavily involved in its continued creation, as well as being groomed to take over the company from his father. He has been raised with certain beliefs about his own rights and how the world works, and the conflict between their two perspectives on the same events, especially in the beginning of the novel, is enormous.
There is a male/male sexual relationship featured here, but this is not a romance, and should not be portrayed as one. This is a book about one man attempting to become a better person and unlearn the toxic worldviews he was born into, and another who is harmed, perhaps irreparably, by becoming a docile without the protection of Dociline, and has to relearn who he is all over again. No character in this book can be called good, and none could be called evil. Elisha’s family is just as harmful to him emotionally in many ways as Alex is, and a man who seems irredeemable near the beginning, turns out to have other hidden motives that recontextualize his behavior. The professed saviors of the book, the activist group trying to take down Bishop Labs and the docile system, use very questionable tactics in pursuit of their goals. A woman who used to be a docile works in Bishop Labs trying to make Dociline better with the perspective of someone who knows what it was like. Both Elisha and Alex have to unbrainwash themselves at points throughout the novel, and their twin awakenings form the structure of the book.
The book was perhaps a little long, I wanted it to come down a little harder on the anti-capitalism thing more than it seemed to want to, and I did have to think about it quite a bit before committing to a rating, so this isn’t getting a full four stars, but it was extremely compelling read that hasn’t really left me since I finished it. I’ll definitely be reading the author’s next book, which is apparently going to be about vampires on a road trip. He has a bit of a fanfic flare to him, as an author, in a good way. There is explicit sex here, and I’ve honestly never read such explicit gay sex anywhere outside of fanfic. I liked the boundary pushing there, the transparency of it. But he also plays with concepts the way fic authors do, which makes sense as he’s said in interviews that he also has written fic. I think this book does an admirable job of exploring some very tough subjects, and illuminates the idea of privilege in a way I haven’t seen done in literature before. Definitely worth checking out.
[3.5 stars, rounded up]
Read Harder Challenge 2020: A debut novel by a queer author.