'Docile': a look into the system
Updated: Jun 7
Admittedly, my interest in 'Docile' by K.M. Szpara was not purely for the societal commentary nor to expand my knowledge of science fiction. I also didn't really know the author or what I was really getting into when I picked up this book. All I knew was the synopsis sounded interesting and that there was going to be a lot of BDSM tones in it.
Boy, howdy, does it ever.
But that's jumping the gun just a little, because 'Docile' is not what it seems to be at first and that's what makes it such an interesting story.
Content Warnings: drugging, rape, suicide, abuse, child abuse, slavery, mental illness portrayals, grooming, torture
The world of 'Docile' is a future that imagines trillionaires as the flamboyant, privileged upper class with colorful styles, expectations, and advanced technologies like that of The Capitol in 'The Hunger Games' with just as much wealth disparity. Yet, the control over the lower classes is not dictated by scarcity or control of resources; it is dictated by debt. (While I can see an argument for them being the same thing, it does not have the same connotations.)
Debt can be bought and sold through servitude, which is a harsh way to pay off a mountain of debt. However, to make life as a servant (or a "Docile") easier there is a drug called "Dociline". Taking this drug ensures that the user is the perfect servant and has no memory of the time spent on the drug.
You can see immediately where this gets, uh, shady. As the cover says, "There is no consent under capitalism".
Yet, most people who sell off their debt in this way decide to take Dociline. For most, it is better to have several years of their memories missing than to live through the trauma of being a slave. The way the trillionaires use their Dociles is cruel, and as a Docile only has seven rights when they choose to become one, there are a lot of different ways that cruelty manifests itself. Yes, this is where your mind can wander into the BDSM territory now because, for the first half of the novel, this is exactly where it leads (and none of it is safe, sane, and/or consensual).
Elisha sells himself for life to pay off an insurmountable debt inherited from previous generations in order to save his family from debtor's prison. Unknowingly, he sells himself as a companion Docile to Alex, the heir to the lab that created Dociline in the first place and who is working on the next generation of drugs. If that wasn't enough, Elisha has exercised one of his seven rights: the right to refuse Dociline. Due to a series of societal, company, and family pressures, this simply will not work for Alex. Thus, the first half of the novel not only introduces us to the severe world of a Docile but also shows us the slow breaking of Elisha's personality.
And yet, there is a strange tenderness about Alex and Elisha that begins to blur lines. Neither are inherently evil or good: they are merely cogs in a machine that have been placed next to one another. They are attracted to each other and slowly they begin to fall in love. It is both heartwrenching and sweet to watch the relationship blossom between these two. Of course, this can't last. This is not a love story, though for a moment we all forget that crucial detail. As Elisha turns into the perfect companion – the perfect Docile – there is the realization that this relationship is more detrimental to him than either Elisha or Alex know. This hurts everyone (reader included) when it is Alex who realizes what he's done. I cried a lot for several chapters.
And so ends the first act.
I don't feel that this is too much of a spoiler because, considering the world-building and the human implications of how this was going, this was the only way it was ever going to end. Could we have gotten an overly-romantic story about how they overcame the system and found true love? Sure, we could have, but that's not what this story is about. This is about people trapped in the system – in all classes and backgrounds and experiences – and how they all interact with one another. This is about broken people and broken systems and broken societies. This is a look into how our future could be if given the right stresses and opportunities to take advantage of the poor and desperate.
This is speculative science fiction at it's best.
Which is where we start in act 2: the utter mess left in the wake of the truth of act 1.
Elisha no longer belongs anywhere. He no longer knows who he is or how to function without Alex. Alex's family is suing Elisha for fraud and manipulation for more money than he could ever pay back. Furthermore, Elisha's family is wholly unsupportive of who he has become. He is a burden, no longer able to help to feed his family, and he is lost. This feeling of hopelessness and suffering pushes him to attempt suicide. Thankfully, this is unsuccessful and Elisha is given help to not only build himself up again but also fight an unfair trial that is stacked against him.
There is no romance, there is no veneer of beauty or comfort or privilege. This is the disgusting beast beneath: the destructive families and friends, the slippery laws and contact vernacular, the lies told because the truth is too hard to bear. While it's hard to watch Elisha struggle to function as a normal human being, his reality is in some ways relatable to our own struggles. It's difficult to untangle from the trauma of being in toxic relationships. It's hard for anyone to navigate the intricacies of the law and a courtroom. Many of us struggle to ask for what we need and want, and often we don't have a vernacular for those things. If we do, we may be unsupported by those closest to us. Alternatively, those who are our support system may become frustrated with us, especially when in the realm of mental health.
As the court trial drags on, both Alex and Elisha come to terms with who they are and who they must become in order to correct the tragedies of their pasts. Alex, in particular, has many blinders to rip off and must step out of a long set of shadows. He has conflicting sets of ideologies and feelings, and ultimately he has to make a series of choices that lead him away from his life's work. Alex's story is relatable for a different reason but no less impactful than Elisha's story.
I wish I could offer you a happy ending, or at least a happy ending for Elisha and Alex, but you have to remember throughout this story that this isn't a romance. I can say that it is a hopeful ending (dare I say a 'healthy' ending?) and one that is bittersweet for everyone involved. Does the trial magically go away and solve the world? No, but it's still an important case in the evolution of this society. It disrupts the "natural order" of things enough that there is a spotlight on Dociline and Dociles. I would argue that this kind of stirring-of-the-pot is reminiscent of the way the accusations and subsequent trial of Harvey Weinstein created the Me Too movement and put a focus on something we all (in one way or another) knew to be true. The trial and incarceration of one problem does not negate the problems that persist throughout our society, but it does change it from more angles than we give credit.
"Docile" takes a look at a system that is paved with inventions: good and bad. The mechanisms highlighted here show the relationship between intentions and why it's more important to listen than to be right. Beyond the story of how two men with an imbalanced power dynamic fell in love is a critical look into a system of control, and how none of us really has any.
Goodreads score: 4 stars
Would highly recommend