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