SFF Shenanigans: Docile

Every month Jess and Karena will discuss the book they chose for the Hodderscape SFF Challenge. This month is Docile by K.M. Sparza. Yes, if you’ve been paying attention it was supposed to be Creatures of Want and Ruin, but we got an opportunity to read Docile early so we grabbed it. We’re still going to read it, so keep watching this space. Also this is going to be VERY spoilery. Since this is coming out the month before the book, be warned!

Here’s the synopsis from the publisher:

Docile is the sexy, startling, near-future, science-fiction debut from Hugo and Nebula finalist K.M. Szpara.

There is no consent under capitalism.

Docile is a science fiction parable about love and sex, wealth and debt, abuse and power, a challenging tour de force that at turns seduces and startles. 

To be a Docile is to be kept, body and soul, for the uses of the owner of your contract. To be a Docile is to forget, to disappear, to hide inside your body from the horrors of your service. To be a Docile is to sell yourself to pay your parents’ debts and buy your childrens’ future.

Elisha Wilder’s family has been ruined by debt, handed down to them from previous generations. His mother never recovered from the Dociline she took during her term as a Docile, so when Elisha decides to try and erase the family’s debt himself, he swears he will never take the drug that took his mother from him. Too bad his contract has been purchased by Alexander Bishop III, whose ultra-rich family is the brains (and money) behind Dociline and the entire Office of Debt Resolution. When Elisha refuses Dociline, Alex refuses to believe that his family’s crowning achievement could have any negative side effects—and is determined to turn Elisha into the perfect Docile without it.

What did you like best about this book?


Karena: Sparza pointed out, maybe a bit more explicitly than we’re used to, the hellscape that is in store for us if we continue down the path of capitalism as we know it. The writing is raw and Sparza doesn’t hold back. There are only a couple books that have left me gasping for air reading them, this is one and Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State is the other. It’s almost like a car crash in the sense it’s so painful, but you can’t look away. I have issues with things in the story, but at the same time there was no way for me to stop reading it. Sparza lays it all out for you and it’s meant to make you feel uncomfortable. The first sex scene between Elisha and Alex is complex. Is it titillating? Is it problematic? I think the answer to both is yes and it’s hard to reconcile that in your own mind.

Jess: I think you’ve put it really well there. My favorite thing about the book was definitely how uncomfortable it made me. Sparza did an amazing job of making me walk that line between being really uncomfortable about what’s happening and really wanting to know what happens next.

What did you like least about this book?

Karena: Honestly, this is a hard question when we’re talking about Docile. It’s about people selling themselves into indentured servitude and drugging themselves to oblivion to remove their consciousness from the horrors that are committed upon their bodies. And then you have Elisha who knows EXACTLY what’s happening to him because he refuses the drug. I have a hard time with the relationship between Alex and Elisha at the end. I don’t want them to be together. I don’t see how they can be together. Couple’s therapy is so in their future.

Jess: I agree. This isn’t a book where “like” and “dislike” are really useful terms for me. It’s more that the entire book made me uncomfortable, but in a way that was mostly useful/productive. If I think about “dislike” as another way to say “made me uncomfortable in an unproductive way,” then I’m with you on the relationship between Alex and Elisha at the end. Can people have relationships with someone who was abusive in the past? Maybe? I don’t have an answer for that. Can Alex and Elisha have a healthy relationship in the future? Sparza hasn’t convinced me that they can.

What other books did this remind you of?

Karena: I don’t think there is another book like this.

Jess: I recently saw it compared to The Handmaid’s Tale, and that’s a comparison I can’t stop thinking about. It’s definitely different (I don’t want to gloss over the fact that Handmaid centers women and Docile makes the deliberate choice to center men, even though we know there are female-identified Dociles), but I don’t think that comp came out of nowhere. They’re asking similar questions, I think. While Handmaid is asking what happens if religious fundamentalism/the patriarchy are pushed to their logical extremes, I think this asks similar questions about capitalism. It’s a recognizable kind of horror.

Karena: You’re right. I did see the Handmaid comp. It might have even been by the publisher themselves. I had forgotten. I totally agree with you now that I remember that.

Which characters in the book did you like best? What characters did you like the least?

Karena: This is a very complex question to answer. Liking or disliking is complicated. Do we like Dutch after we find out he was a double agent, even though the things he did undercover to Elisha were completely heinous? Is Alex actually redeemable? Elisha’s best friend Abby is pretty good. Elisha breaks my heart throughout the book. Mariah is obviously the fucking worst.

Jess: I agree with you on this point. I think that with the exception maybe of Mariah and the Third, very few characters were morally 100% right or wrong, which makes the question of likability a lot harder for me. The character I liked the least was probably Elisha’s dad – I thought he was unnecessarily hard on Elisha in a way that didn’t really garner any sympathy from me.

How well do you think the author built the world in the book?

Karena: Sparza terrifyingly created a complete world. With the current political environment we find ourselves in, I can absolutely see how this could be a reality.

Jess: Worldbuilding is such a delicate question in these kinds of dystopic books. It’s a very different kind of worldbuilding than high fantasy or space opera or something that requires you to establish an entirely different world in terms of the “map.” I don’t know which kind is easier to pull off well. In any case, I do think Sparza established the way that this world functions fairly seamlessly. Sometimes it can be clunky when you’re dealing with “our world, but different,” but he wove all of that into the story in a way that felt really natural to me.

What did you think of the ending? Was it satisfying? Did it make sense?

Jess: Okay, so honestly, this is where the book kind of fell apart for me. I thought the first 3/4s were strong and I was so here for it. But the last quarter felt rushed. Here’s the thing – either Elisha’s conditioning happened too quickly to begin with or his deconditioning happened too quickly. It just seemed unbelievable for him to go from completely Docile in mindset to understanding what happened to him the way that he did.
I also hated the drug that they developed to undo the effects of Dociline. The book’s message from that point forward was really unclear to me. I thought it was an evasion of the discussion about how you would actually undo this kind of horribly abusive capitalist nightmare once the system is in place. Instead of having to confront it, all of a sudden there was a drug that could undo the effects and give people their lives back. Are we supposed to believe that the system is going to continue, but at least it won’t ruin people forever? Does the existence of an antidote really make the existence of Dociline okay? It’s the “solution” that Atwood (if we’re going with that comparison) never even tried to offer us, and I think Handmaid was a stronger book for it. I would have been more satisfied without any “answers,” especially ones that I felt were sloppily deployed.
Overall, I was frustrated with the ending. I think it needed at least one more strong editorial pass. Even if the book had been longer (50 pages of content, if they were useful, could have helped a lot for me), I needed more to be satisfied with it.

Karena: Jess summed it up so perfectly that I’m gonna let that be the end. I couldn’t possibly say it any better than that.

We’re learning that maybe we shouldn’t announce our next book because we swapped the last two selections. (Jess: Yeah, we’re fickle that way. No one should be surprised.) But at time of posting we’re gonna try Creatures of Want and Ruin by Molly Tanzer again. We’re #JKShenanigansSFF

SFF Shenanigans: Broken Places & Outer Spaces

After our false start Jess and I decided to tackle Broken Places & Outer Spaces: Finding Creativity in the Unexpected by Nnedi Okorafor for the Hodderscape challenge. The category is Nonfiction by a SFF Writer.

What was your initial reaction to the book? Did it hook you immediately, or take some time to get into?

Jess: It definitely hooked me right away, which is so important with a book of that length. I read it in one sitting.
Karena: I listened to the audio with Nnedi narrating which is one of my favorite things. So I was definitely interested right away and listened all at one time.
Jess: Oh right! I forgot you listened on audio. I love when authors narrate their own work.

Have you read anything else by the author? If so, what and did you have a favorite?

Jess: I’ve read Who Fears Death and the Binti trilogy.
Karena: Who Fears Death was my first. I read it with an SFF book group. I also have read the prequel The Book of Phoenix, Lagoon and the Binti trilogy.
Jess: I know she’s written a ton, but those are the only ones I’ve actually read.
Karena: I’ve liked everything I read by her so a favorite is hard. Maybe this nonfiction honestly.
Jess: I have Lagoon, but just haven’t gotten to it yet! story of the TBR
Karena: For reals. I read it because at one of her talks I went to she framed it as a better “alien invasion story.”
Jess: yeah, I really loved this! from the two novels I’ve read, I definitely preferred Who Fears Death. I liked Binti, but I wanted a little more I think.

What surprised you about the author’s experience?

Jess: I had no idea that she had scoliosis. That is like the worst thing I can imagine, getting paralyzed. especially completely unexpectedly like that.
Karena: I remember those scoliosis checks in middle school. How terrifying to be told you have a low chance for risks and then it happens.

What was your favorite quote/passage?

Karena: I liked that she plans to become a cyborg in 2029.
Jess: Yes! I loved that tie-in to her SFF work.

What aspects of the author’s story could you most relate to?

Jess: I’m a runner, so the thought of suddenly being paralyzed horrified me. While I didn’t relate to the experience, I found her description really visceral and I could really relate to how frustrating she found that as an athlete.
Karena: I’m not an athlete, but the experience of having everything change in an instant is something that I could relate to as the wife of a former service member. We would have this existence and then you get your new base assignment and you go from North Dakota to Okinawa, Japan.

Do you have any other thoughts?

Jess: Just that I’m glad I read it! and I probably wouldn’t have without this challenge, just because of the way that I am with nonfiction
Karena: I found it fascinating how she went from wanting to be an entomologist to becoming an SFF writer.


In conclusion, we both really liked Broken Places and Outer Spaces for our January book. February’s book is going to be Creatures of Want and Ruin by Molly Tanzer for the “Book based on Real World History” as it takes place during the United State’s Prohibition during the 1930’s.



SFF Shenanigans: January’s DNF

So we tried. We really did. However, January’s selection A Memory Called Empire for Hodderscapes’s was a bust for both Jessica and I. Not to despair, we did read something for January anyway, Nnedi Okorafor’s Broken Places and Outer Spaces: Finding Creativity in the Unexpected for the Nonfiction by an SFF author category, which we’ll be posting about in a separate post. In this post though, Jess and I will be going through why we DNF’d this book and what our criteria for a DNF (Did Not Finish) is.

Karena


I DNF way easier than I used to. I have no real criteria. If I put it down and never feel the need to pick it back up…DNF. I figure I’m already going to die with books unread so why waste that time on books that don’t interest me. This is a long time in coming. I used to think I had to read all the books I ever picked up because we’re not supposed to quit, right? Take on a job of being a bookseller and that goes right out the window. There are deadlines for review publications, or newsletters, or just there’s always a new book coming out. I tried reading A Memory Called Empire not only in print, but also listening on audio. I couldn’t get through the first chapter. The pacing was just too slow for me. It felt clunky and disjointed.

Jess

A Memory Called Empire did a really specific thing that I don’t like in books -it tried to give us a way that another group of beings communicate. In this case, the aliens used body language that was super specific and very different from how the human characters do. I appreciate the effort, and I actually do like thinking about how communication would work between two groups that have different frames of reference for aspects of language that we take for granted (intonation, body language, facial expression, etc). That said, I didn’t think it was executed well. Every single time two characters interacted, we got at least a line or two about how and why communication was hard and how they were missing each other. It got repetitive and frustrating to read. (Another example of this done poorly, in my opinion, is Bel Canto by Anne Patchett, while The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers is one that does this really well.)

When talking about this blog post, Karena asked me to talk a bit about “the art of the DNF,” and that phrase has kind of stuck in my head. It is definitely something that I think of as more of an art than a science. The one feeling that I keep coming back to is – do I want to be reading this? If I noticed that I’m picking up my Switch more than my book or spending a lot of time on Instagram or putting on re-runs of old TV shows, then I’m probably just about to DNF a book. Of course, there are exceptions – if I get really into a new game or TV show or audiobook, then I like to lean into that. But if I’m spending a lot of time with my brain “turned off,” it’s probably because I’m not engaged in what I’m reading. I don’t like my brain turned off. Reading is one of my favorite things to do, so if I’m actively avoiding it, I put down whatever I’m reading. If I never come back it it, then it was likely the book’s fault that I wasn’t engaged, and I move on. All of that to say that I agree with Karena. There are too many books that I’m never going to read, so why waste my time with something I don’t really like?

Do you ever DNF? Do you have criteria you have to meet before you do? What was your last one? Have you read A Memory Called Empire? Let us know in the comments.

Introducing Jessica: a SFF Cohort

Hi everyone! I’m so excited to be joining Karena as we tackle the Hodderscape 2020 SFF reading challenge! Karena and I bonded over our shared love of all things SFF (but specifically The Night Circus) and have spent a huge chunk of our friendship shouting at each other about books.

About me: I’m a lesbian children’s librarian with an affinity for magic in my books and whiskey in my coffee. I live with a chaos demon (read: tabby cat) who I named after a character in The Night Circus. I have a half dozen literary tattoos. When I’m not reading, I’m….well, I’m usually reading, but I’m also a runner and enjoy cooking and knitting.

My SFF origin story: You know, I can’t really remember a time before I loved SFF. My mom handed me The Hobbit when I was 8, and it was love from then on out. I went to school with Harry Potter and dreamed about doorways in closets to icy wonderlands and read too much Stephen King at much too young an age and played Zelda games on my GameBoy Color until my eyes went buggy.
Then I grew up. I grew up, and someone at some point told me that fantasy wasn’t “cool” anymore. So I dutifully read my classics and whatever was assigned to me in school and I got degrees in English and Comparative Literature and only read Very Serious stuff for years. (There were a lot of cishet white dudes during that period of my life.)
When I quit my PhD program, I wanted to learn how to really love books again. I went back for the classics that I loved as a kid – Lord of the Rings and Stephen King and the like, and then I started exploring the SFF section of bookstores more. An incredible thing had happened during the time that I was away – SFF woke up. Suddenly, there were more women on the shelves! And more than cishet white dudes saving the world between the pages! And there was so much queerness! The worlds in these books were bigger and more beautiful and more interesting than anything I had been asked to read in college. I found underground libraries and magical circuses and spaceships full of found family. I traveled between Londons and lived through the fifth season and caught a sexually transmitted city. I started reading high fantasy and science fiction and middle grade fantasy and urban fantasy and magical realism and…you get the idea. I fell back in love with reading. Now, you can find me at school with Mia Corvere and Ivy Gamble and dreaming about doorways to worlds of salt and ink and reading too much Catherynne Valente.

The Quick Sheet:
My wheelhouse: Queer ladies doing awesome things with magic or in spaceships or both.
Authors on my autobuy list: Catherynne Valente. Seanan McGuire. Erin Morgenstern. NK Jemisin. VE Schwab. Sarah Gailey. (Okay, my wallet just started screaming in protest, so I’m stopping there.)
What’s on my TBR: Right now? Godsgrave, because it’s been a long time since I’ve been so invested in a series that I had to grab the sequel immediately. Blue is the Warmest Color and We Set the Dark on Fire for my Coven Challenge. A reread of Drive Here and Devastate Me. A Mirror Empire because I’ve seen it pop up a bunch recently. And A Memory Called Empire for this challenge!
Which books on the Challenge I’m looking forward to reading: All of them? No, but seriously. If I have to choose, The City We Became and Docile have been on my list for a long time, and I know those two will inspire a special amount of screaming with Karena.
What do I do when I’m not reading: Training for my next race (currently the Brooklyn 2020 half marathon). Still playing Zelda games (just now on my Switch) until my eyes go buggy.