Dealing With What Docile Doesn’t

This is not actually a review of K. M. Szpara’s Docile.

Not really.

It’s a review of what the novel doesn’t deal with and what people are clearly getting out of it in publishing and fandom spaces.

Docile is a near-future dystopian work of erotic science fiction where people in debt sell themselves into something that’s in-between indentured servitude and the horrors of the historic slavery in the United States. The book revolves around Elisha – who sells himself into debt so that his younger sister won’t be subjected to the traumatizing effects of service – and Alex – the trillionaire who buys Elisha, tries to break him, and then… quelle suprise… falls in love with him. 

The novel reminds me of Captive Prince and Ai no Kusabi, two series that deal with male/male relationships and sexual(ized) slavery in one capacity or another within the main story… and the fandom responses to both of those things absolutely reminds me of Docile’s intense early defenders who’ve already shown up to fret about “antis” coming for their slavefic. 

(And when the antis in question include Black people and anti-racist allies simply annoyed at yet another white author going “look at this thing that happened to Black people, what if something similar happened to my white main characters”… Yikes.)

It’s that experience of years in fandom watching people bend over backward to shut down any conversation about why slavery in these erotic works remains uncomfortable for some Black people in these fandom spaces that definitely informs why I decided to look at reviews for Docile rather than the book itself beyond some references.


Few of the reviews I’ve gone over for K. M. Szpara’s Docile mention race.

When people talk about this book, they call it “exquisite” (Grimdark Magazine), “an unforgettable story of human connection” (Charlie Jane Anders), and “ultimately satisfying” (Publishers Weekly).

On Goodreads, where the novel has dozens of reviews and ratings, the vast majority are four and five stars where people gush about how much they love the dystopian notes or dark erotic romance.

There’s even this Tor.com review focusing on consent where writer Meg Ellison entreats readers to “Pick up this pink book if you’re ready to join the fucking fight.” 

(N.K. Jemisin, by the way, not only retweeted that review, but plans to read Docile as a result so it’s clearly not like Every Single Black Person has the same opinion on this book!)

From what I’ve seen so far, Kayti Burt’s Den Of Geek review comes close to mentioning race or the absence of it in the novel, but she does it by mentioning other people’s reactions and criticism – not linking to it or commenting on the issue as her own observations – when she writes that:

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.

Then there’s Kirkus’s reviewer who notes that “Szpara fails to address the history of slavery in America” while blogger Monte Price points out that “the most prominent black character was named fucking onyx”.

Then there’s Adri’s review over at Nerds of a Feather, where she writes that, “this is a novel premised on slavery, set in the USA, which has nothing at all to say about historic slavery, the factors that enabled it, and the future of racism in relation to the Docile system.

The reviewers and authors I’ve seen talk about this book as a triumph for how it shows a surprisingly plausible future for the United States and gush about its anticapitalism stance… Largely don’t think about this book in its context. 

They don’t sit and think about what worldbuilding work has to be done in order to tell a plausible story where in some near-future version of the United States, some massively wealthy human beings have banded together to make a modern and hybrid form of slavery legal.

They don’t think about where our world would actually have to go to get there and what the past of the US would mean for the communities most likely to become Docile in order to get out from under their crushing debt. They don’t think who the cards are already stacked against.

I don’t know offhand how far in the future Docile is set and please, feel free to fill me in.

However, how long do you think is enough for Black Americans to not raise hell at the resurgence of open and explicit slavery even if it’s just in one state? 

Considering the hell we raise now over modern-day slavery set-ups like the way Black men and boys are funneled into a prison system that utilizes them as underpaid slave labor for a variety of industries…

What would the world have to devolve to where any black person in the country wouldn’t just roll over and take it from Slavery 2XXX, but are seen as people in power and working behind the companies working to enslave people because of their debt?

There are Black people in Docile – one is the unfortunately-named Onyx, who is revealed to be part of the resistance, and another is Jess Pearl, who’s the head of R&D for the company making the drug Dociline that keeps the Docile… that.

Historically, there have always been Black people willing to throw other Black people under the bus in order to get ahead. We see it all the time! Part of that whole thing where Black people aren’t a monolith assigned the same point of view at birth… ya know?

But having one of the first named Black characters in the book be part of the team working on the drug that lets these sort-of slaves survive in a haze… that’s some seriously messed up stuff right there.

Her ancestors must be rolling in their graves…

But I digress… The thing about Docile is that at first, I think I missed what this book was actually about? Or I thought it’d be different from what fandom churns out uncritically. But I was definitely wrong on some counts because this is… more of the same stuff we’ve always gotten from fandom.

At the end of the day, despite what I can tell Szpara intended, this is fandom’s slavefic.

It makes the same mistakes – a slavery and abolitionism narrative primarily focusing on white male characters, worldbuilding that doesn’t take actual US history into consideration and makes race a non-issue, and has a (relative) happily ever after in the end where Elisha and Alex part with a kiss and plans to be and grow together.

If you’ve missed it, slavery narratives ultimately revolving around white men do nothing for me as a person aside from filling me with annoyance and frustration because this is what fandom does.

Fandom – and, to an extent, Romancelandia – takes the trauma of slavery and decides “that would absolutely rock if there were some BDSM elements in it” and will bend over backwards to explain why actually slavefic is super empowering.

At the end of the day, I can’t say that Docile and the intensely adoring reactions it has pulled from some planets in the Science Fiction and Fantasy solar system would be any better if the book involved more characters of color. Or if it’d been more self-aware of and active about addressing the United States’ history of slavery and subjugation that continues onto this day. 

I can’t even say without a shadow of a doubt that things would be great if the author was someone whose family tree was shaped by slavery. (Like if one of SFF’s Five Familiar Black Women Writers had written this book as is with the same non-nuance… I’d still be frustrated because fandom would still do the thing.)

I think that in the quest to create truly stunning queer anti-capitalist science fiction, Szpara maybe didn’t think about the fact that what we write doesn’t exist in a vacuum. He didn’t think about the fact that while he may be passionate about queer anti-capitalist critique and sparking conversations about consent…

A lot of the people who are excited about Docile are pretty much just… in it for the slavefic.

For the hurt comfort. For the chance for a dark and delicious thrill that hits them where it hurts and leaves them hornt. For the “Ripped From the AO3” theme. For the queer dude slash with quality kink concepts. For the power imbalance. 

What nuanced critique of debt, consent, and capitalism exists in this book – and, the incredibly flawed premise really hurts it here – doesn’t matter as much to many of the people picking it up… 

What matters most is the chance to continue to uncritically consume something deeply harmful and frequently that fandom has always salivated over –

Only now it’s in a pretty pink hardcover!

So that makes it… empowering?


I’ll close on this note kind of pulling from the actual thread I did do about Docile as I watched the reactions roll in:

Whiteness informs a lot of this book’s existence and its positive reviews and its defenders. Szpara and the editor who worked on the book, Carl Engle-Laird, are both white.

The majority of the people going “I want to read this book” or leaving it gushing reviews that gloss over or flat out dodge the particular commentary on this US-set story of modern slavery…  also white.

Same goes for the people getting pissed that anyone would look at this book’s premise and be critical. The people claiming that “you just had to be in fandom to get it” like –

Wow.

This isn’t the first time that Tor has published a book about white people essentially experiencing something that has happened – and continues happening – to people of color. It’s just wild that this book is coming out so soon after Tochi Onyebuchi’s Riot Baby talked about the pipeline to prison and enslavement Black people are subject to in the country. 

(Before Docile, there was Annalee Newitz’s Autonomous – a similarly slavefic-y book whose summary asks “Is freedom possible in a culture where everything, even people, can be owned?”)

Queer fiction should be allowed to be messy.

It should be allowed to be painful.

However, let’s be very real here: it’s messed up to see people saying that in response to this boo.

Why?

Because the particular criticisms about how it was marketed with things like quippy AO3-style tag –

Or how the premise doesn’t make sense if you’ve ever had a Black History Month slavery speed-run in your local US public school –

Also, again, the most prominent Black character in the book is legitimately named Onyx – and I have a bone to pick about the character beyond his name that we actually won’t be getting into here. 

Mmm… Keep it.

Docile is a book that calls back to the history of slavery in the United States – the enslavement of Black people – and then hangs up the phone without so much as a timid “hello”. Its lack of true engagement with the still-painful, and still incredibly relevant past of slavery in the United States shows in how reviewers are responding to it as “yet another” gushy and empowering dark-fic in fandom. 

Docile doesn’t reckon with race.

On any level.

And neither do the majority of the reviewers who’ve talked about the book so far.

If your queer anti-capitalist critique isn’t also explicitly anti-racist… it’s probably not great anti-capitalist critique. And considering how this book primarily centers around the experiences of two white men and ends with redemption for our terrible trillionaire?

Yikes on bikes.  

About Zeenah

Zina writes about comics, nerd history, and ridiculous romance novels when not working frantically on her first collection of short stories and complaining about stuff. One day, she'll settle down and write that novel.
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11 Responses to Dealing With What Docile Doesn’t

  1. Pingback: Docile by K.M. Szpara - The Fantasy Inn

  2. arioch6 says:

    Ok, so I’m white and European, so it is likely I show my ass here, feel free to delete or mock etc.

    I think when talking about slavery aus, there can be a disconnect between europe and america, because the words have different context. In the US, the focus is of course on chattel slavery. Which is a specific form of it. In europe it’s not that chattel slavery isn’t known (but we honestly don’t talk about it as much as we should), but it exist on a level with slavery in the roman and greek world or even serfdom (which lasted until the 19th century in some parts. maybe even longer). In short, the topic doesn’t carry the racialisation that it always does in the US. On the flip side, US uses race while here that is clearly a nazi term and ackward work arounds like ethnicity are used even if racism is still very much alive here.

    And I think some of that context influences how I at least think about slavery aus. Docile, from what I gathered, doesn’t use chattel slavery, but debt slavery, however, you are absolutely right that a white US author writing about slavery of any kind in the US especially is absolutely failing of thinking through how that would interact with race and is frankly failing at any sort of aim this book has had. On the other hand, I found Captive Prince palatable, because Pacat wrote it mostly with Greek/Roman slavery in mind and she is Australian so I don’t think it is fair to demand of her to write for an US context, even publishing online originally. (That doesn’t mean she shouldn’t be critique from the pov of Australian racial politics, but I can’t judge that because I don’t know mmuch context.) It also helps that the solution of the UST comes only when both of the characters are on even footing and that slavery is abolished in the end. (Though I expect many slave fics do that as a sort of fig leaf of good taste…)

    Ultimately, what brought me away from enjoying slave fic and even institutionalized power differences in fic was… a slave fic. I don’t rec this fic anymore, because while I first read this at least ten years ago I didn’t realize that it did things I no longer support: written by a white fan, starring white male characters and applies experiences of chattel slavery to them. Some of these I only recognized in hindsight as I learned more about the specifics of slavery in the US, like the farming of a specific plant that hurt people’s hands when touched inherently. But I still can’t help but love it a lot, because this fic helped drive home for me why no slavery fic is ever consentual, even if both parties agree/fall in love etc.. Any Yes given in a system where saying No is impossible… is just meaningless. It cannot count if you can’t say No. That fic handles it by having a long arc that is centered around the efforts for freedom (again, taking many elements from african-american experiences) and it’s spelled out clearly that because of the systemic imbalance nothing can happen. And that fic turned me off of sexy slave fic and variants – harem aus, magical bonding where one is bound by magic to the other and so on – forever. I think for others that enjoy it, at least making it more fantastic with familiars while also keeping race in mind is probably the best path.

    As for Docile, I only read one Goodreads review on it and I think that said it best: It might seem interesting for those who have never read a single slavery au in fandom, but if you have it’s… just boring. Because it is exactly that, a fannish slavery au without much else added.

    Personally, I had a much better time reading “The Fifth Season” by N.K. Jemisin last month, which dealt in its world with things like enslavement. Dressed up in a sort of fantastical style, sure, but it was far more nuanced and I can’t wait to read the next book in the series. I think her sort of approach is vastly superior to whatever Docile is doing.

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    • Kiki says:

      The only reason Europe, *especially* Western Europe, can allow itself the luxury of equating the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade it started to other forms of slavery and serfdom in its memory is because of the racism that it created. The very foundations of “Western” thought as it relates to how we envision humanity, government, politics, society, science, religion and the arts in the modern world are based on white men who formed their ideas on what was human, and how to classify humans, by creating and declaring Whiteness as humanity’s peak and declaring the “African” not just as unequal but sub-human. It was, after all, Europeans who colonized what we now know as the United States in the first place. The difference between your region and the USA is that when the latter became a nation-state its enslaved population was within its borders, allowing the descendants to exert greater influence over national discourse. For the OG colonizers, the majority of its slave population descendants live outside of the metropoles, so they can whitewash their history and play cute pretending serfdom was just as important and race is the USA’s little hobbyhorse as if they didn’t commit the worst atrocities in human history against Indigenous/African peoples for 500 centuries.

      Australia was a British colony–the British, one of the biggest colonizers–and remains part of the Commonwealth. I don’t care what Pacat had in mind. I love that series but once she wrote a book in which a white character enslaved a black one she opened the book to this critique. There are author intention and reader interpretation: the latter is not subservient to the former, IMO.

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      • arioch6 says:

        You are absolutely right. White supremacy was made by Europeans to justify their colonialism and racism is everywhere. But while the broad strokes of whiteness on top, blackness on the bottom are the same, slavery influenced US racism and how it constructs race and whiteness. The “one drop” rule was a result of slavery in the US and that construction of blackness is a “unique” feature of racialisation in the US. Comparatively, South American colonies enshrined “mixed” status as an own racial category. While I don’t know the exact features in Australia, it was part of the Commonwealth and I would expect that the construction follows how Britain constructs race, which was mostly along the lines of nazi science. British racist and german racist loved each others bullshittery.

        Just to double check, in your last paragraph you were talking about Damen, right? Pacat didn’t write a different book I missed, correct? Because given what I mentioned of different construction of blackness, I see how he reads as black in an US race context. He does not read that way in an european race context. I’m not saying that because of some “I didn’t realize Rue wasn’t white” excuse, but because he reads as “mediterranean” “race” (and I am using that here in the way it was constructed in Europe). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mediterranean_race I know some assholes in the US like to bring up Italians or Irish not being seen as white to justify some of their own racism, but those attitudes of conditional whiteness do exist in europe, today. In 300, which is of course a whole can of racist worms, greek is very much identified as “white”. But just looking at the coverage of the 2011 euro crisis shows these constructions of “race”, even if no longer called that in Europe are alive and well. Even from what I know, the reasons why the conditions of whiteness for southern european and east european groups were dropped in the US was antiblackness.

        I think the Australian construction of these categories is closer to the european than the US one. See for example this paper from 2007 which notes Anglo-Celtic supremacy as the top of the hierarchy and distinguishes Southern European immigrants as a separate group: https://www.westernsydney.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/29408/A291.pdf

        Less scholarly, but from an australian fan who talks about how they read race in the novels here: https://certainbouquetjellyfishblr.tumblr.com/post/142610874997/i-keep-seeing-posts-about-cs-pacat-being-a-white Again, Mediterranean origin is seen as a distinctive racial category.

        I’m not saying any of these constructions are “better”, because white supremacy is always bullshit. I also saw Stitch mention in another post that fans, presumably in the US, draw and write Damen as a black character in situation where he is a slave, and that’s clearly racist. But Pacat, while obviously also living in the system of white supremacy, is from a country where whiteness is constructed differently and from what I gather writes with the notions of that whiteness in mind. I admit I never dived deep into the fandom besides some post canon fics. Maybe you have information that shows it is completely different. And I also don’t think Pacat should be free from critique. But it’s also a matter of how racism and whiteness are flexible concepts that are whatever the white elite needs and differ from place to place. Again, Australian White supremacy is not better than European or any other. I’m unsure if the understanding of the construction of race in an US context, informed by the underpinings of how blackness is constructed, specifically in the US, is the right tool to approach the text Pacat produced. As for the US fans, it is the correct one. But there are other former British colonies out there.

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  3. Priya Sridhar says:

    Stitch, thank you for this review.

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  4. Kiki says:

    I’ve been pretty wary of the hyped queer titles coming out of Tor these days after I read Gideon the Ninth, which read as if someone twisted Muir’s arm to include non-white characters.

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  5. Thank you for this review – I was getting the twitchy vibes after reading the synopsis and all the glowing reviews about this book… but I couldn’t put my finger on what was setting me off.
    You put it into words.
    Now I have to wonder, yet again, about what the heck the publishers were thinking.
    Thanks again.

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  6. Pingback: Docile by K. M. Szpara – Queer Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Database

  7. Pingback: Wrap-up: March – reads rainbow

  8. I’m so glad I read your review! I’ve heard mostly good things about Docile, so was excited to give it a try but having read your review, the lack of understand of slavery and its history is a big red flag.

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