Some speculative fiction books feel so relevant to the contemporary world as it exists, it’s easy to forget they are speculative fiction at all. This is the case with the setting in K.M. Szpara‘s Docile, which takes place in a near-future Maryland where debt is passed down from generation to generation in the same way wealth is in the real world.
As you might imagine, this has only served to widen the wealth gap, creating a society with trillionaires on one side and a deeply-indebted populace on the other, with almost no chance for mobility between the two groups—an only slightly distorted version of our own world.
In the world of Docile, debtors have only one real avenue for working off their debt: selling themselves into slavery for years at a time (or even their entire lifetime); these “servants” are known as Dociles. This system is considered “humane” because of the development of a drug called Dociline, which makes Dociles more submissive and keeps Dociles from remembering what they were forced to do while under the drug’s influence.
We are introduced to this world through the perspective of 21-year-old Elisha as he prepares to sneak out of his home in the middle of the night so that he may attempt to sell all three million of his family’s accumulated debt, keeping them safe from the collectors and cops who could swoop in at any time. He walks along the ill-used highway from rural Maryland to Baltimore, observing the office buildings that have been turned into multi-family residential spaces and recollects what he has heard about city folk, that they “ride bicycles that don’t move and soak in bathtubs full of chemicals.”
Docile would be much more straightforward were Elisha the only character whose perspective we are so intimately granted, but Szpara is not letting readers off the hook so easily. We also experience this story from Alex’s perspective. Alex is not only a trillionaire, having been born into a life of extreme privilege, but also a member of the powerful Bishop family. It was Alex’s grandmother who developed the formula for Dociline, and Alex is actively working to develop a new evolution of the drug.
“To be a Bishop means to shape society—the future,” Szpara writes from Alex’s perspective. “That’s the charge I received from my grandmother, along with my name. It would be hard to expand our fortune by marrying into a wealthier family—few exist—and yet the pressure remains, not only to preserve our legacy but to enrich it.”
When Alex is pressured by his disapproving father and the company board to get a Docile (as if humans were luxury cars), he chooses Elisha, purchasing Elisha’s family debt in exchange for a lifetime of his service. Little does Alexander Bishop III know that Elisha plans on exercising one of the rights given to all Dociles: the right to refuse Dociline. Elisha’s mother worked off one million of their family’s debt by becoming a Docile for 10 years and never recovered from the effects of the drug. Elisha is determined not to lose himself in the same way.
Forced to come up with a different way of keeping Elisha in line, Alex begins to “train” him, using a combination of torture as punishment and sex as reward. As Alex spends more time with Elisha, he begins to develop feelings for his Docile. The feelings help Alex begin to understand the devastating, dehumanizing ramifications of the system he has actively helped shape and takes part in. But will he fully realize it in time to help the man he supposedly loves? Is love even possible given the fucked-up-ness of Alex and Elisha’s dynamic?
Szpara is incredibly ambitious with this setup: using highly-effective, well-worn tropes from romance literature and fanfiction storytelling while simultaneously interrogating them, all in an attempt to explore the violence of capitalism at the most intimate of interpersonal levels. I’ll leave it to each individual reader to determine if Szpara pulls it off.
A reader’s own reaction to Docile will no doubt depend on many personal factors, as all storytelling experiences do. If you are triggered by the depiction of non-consensual sex or sexual abuse, as well as rape scenes specifically from the first-person point of view of the rapist, then don’t read this book. This book also features suicide attempts. There has already been some very valid criticism surrounding Docile’s complete lack of mention of America’s very real history of slavery, which undermines the novel’s effectiveness not only on a thematic level but a worldbuilding one.
Personally, I tore through this book and it stayed with me long after I had put it down. I found myself hoping for disturbing plot outcomes on an emotional level that didn’t track with what I thought should happen on a more intellectual level, and I found that dissonance, no doubt intentionally-provoked on Szpara’s part, fascinating. I look forward to discussing this book with others and am eager to see what Szpara, who writes beautifully and with worthwhile purpose, does next.
Docile is now available to purchase wherever books are sold.