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