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Docile coverWalking into my classroom at the start of the school year, I see a diverse group of students eager to learn and grow and most of all change the world. By mid-semester, that passion always wanes; and, by its end, the months of study are, due to over-enrolled classes and unrealistic deadlines for learning and a dozen other issues facing higher education, more akin to a wasted blur.

A few weeks before this desultory end, I often bring in an assignment called "small efforts," which will become the groundwork for the cohort’s last writing project. In total, it asks each student what small effort they believe can be made in the world to create needed change—immediately—and to write a proposal on how they could execute it. I begin the class with this question:

What are you most afraid of for the future and next generation?

Over the years, I’ve heard answers ranging from environmental concerns to fears about how technology is shaping a world without human contact. Money, careers, and debt are also high on the list—what will they do for work and where, and how will they ever pay back their loans? More problems are interjected like race and equality, freedom and rights. To them, the world is broken and unfixable. Very quickly, they erode into a despairing overwhelm of inertia and conclude it’s all hopeless.

That overwhelm of a broken, unfixable world is the sentiment that opens Docile. The novel’s is a possible future that has evolved to imprison its people in debt which is then “worked off” in various ways in the hopes of regaining freedom.

For generations of college students who’ve amassed debt—and plenty of others who would welcome the privilege of or access to education—Docile might offer a social anatomy of our past, especially in the US. The debt crisis, the broken modes of capitalism, even the glaring privileges to avoid debt that are afforded to some who have access to education, jobs, and other resources, would also be present in such a work of social SF. Docile could even offer a vision of how we got to this point and where it could go if we stay on this course … and, perhaps more importantly, how to transcend it.

But Docile is not social science fiction, so let’s take that off the table right now.

Docile is—at best—thinly disguised fan fiction. It’s hard not to read and take notice of an author’s admission of reading nothing else but “fic” for years when you’ve entered a vaguely familiar world within the first few pages of their work. Novels that immediately came to mind reading Docile included the Hunger Games and Twilight series, The Handmaid’s Tale, and A Game of Thrones, with some Mortal Instruments thrown in for good measure—oh, and yeah, obvs, Fifty Shades of Grey. Szpara has a vampire novel coming out; this explained why I was most likely reading a BDSM story about Edward and Jacob, or maybe a redo of True Blood.

Here’s all you need to know about the storyline of Docile: its protagonist, Elisha, takes the hit for his family to alleviate their three-mil in amassed debt by becoming a “docile,” which means being enslaved to a rich white man (Alex) for “life” so his sister doesn’t have to. Once Elisha becomes a docile, he is owned by his new overlord, Alex, who needs to prove himself in the family business and makes Elisha his project, by degrading his existence through rape and humiliation and enslavement. The sex-rape and love-relationship that sprouts between them takes over as the main story and is made to be sexy and thrilling, alluring even.

The novel fumbles all this early on. Opening chapters are the most important in grounding the rules of the world—especially in genre fiction—and to establish the characters. Docile fails on both counts. For example, Abby, Elisha’s younger sister, is the high-holy motivation for signing over his life to the Office of Debt Resolution (ODR). Yet she is never made to be a real person; we only see her sleeping, and are left to ask: Why does Elisha want to keep Abby from this fate? We never get to see the consequences and choices that await Abby—or what might make Abby sufficiently special to be preserved from becoming a docile. If we were clued into Abby’s dream, for instance, a destiny that she could follow if Elisha makes this sacrifice, then there might be cause to read on. But, as it is, we only learn that Elisha had a discussion with his dad that their debt would be signed over to Abby—we don’t even see this exchange firsthand, so here, too, lots gets missed that might otherwise define the world and the rules.

However, Elisha shares his dream with us, offering a hint of backstory. Only there’s a problem: if Elisha wasn’t going to take on his parents’ debt and sell it, via being a docile, then he’d go to university to become a teacher. Were Docile smarter, it would here address the issues besetting today’s higher education—especially debt resolution and access—which speak so clearly to the novel’s supposed themes. It is as if Elisha says to us, I’m just going to ignore all this terrible stuff going on in the world and do my own thing. (Typical of white privilege: ignore the problem, got it!) Put plainly, there’s no heroism in it.

Since Elisha lacks a solid backstory, there aren’t enough stakes present in the narrative to demand we read on. Am I going to read to see if Elisha will avoid this docile fate so he can go to school? Ho-hum. Next book, please.

The worldbuilding falters, too. Elisha’s mother makes an appearance, senseless and robotic, to show us what’s in store for Elisha if he exercises his right to take the drug “dociline,” which will allow him to do his “debt-time” without remembering. Where is the conflict here? The alternative to becoming a docile is to be dragged to a debtors' prison, which we never see or quite learn enough about. One then wonders: how is the debt-prison a more terrible fate than being enslaved? And maybe not remembering it? I only have the Dickensian debtor-prison as a reference, so the choice feels rushed and unplanned, an important detail overlooked.

Still, Elisha indeed chooses not to take the drug. This is another world “rule” that is not fully explored. A common flaw of new authors is to write knowing what they are plotting towards, and this is a good example of the phenomenon: since the author knows the story is really about a BDSM captor/slave relationship, Elisha can’t very well take the dociline. It might have been more proactive—and integral to the story—if the author had set up Elisha to take the drug, but revealed he was in the .00001 percentage that it didn’t work for, or that there was a side effect, thereby making it ineffective, and forcing Elisha to be awake for the horror that awaited him. This would have helped the world make more sense, and raised the stakes and conflict. But instead we’re simply rushed to the kinky sex.

On which note: Szpara establishes Elisha and Alex’s relationship more as a patronage, and less a governing debt-system, to soften the reality of what occurs between the two men, who actually skitter on romance (sorry, Stockholm syndrome DOES NOT apply here AT ALL). But it truly is rape and enslavement.

Most of the inner-story of Elisha’s enslavement will feel like you’re reading fan fiction BDSM-play between, say, Edward and Jacob from Twilight, as he and his “master” toss and turn between whether or not Elisha consents and enjoys being raped and dominated, and is coming to terms with whether or not he’s having feelings for his captor. At the same time, in a dual POV, Alex goes from captor and punisher—oh you bad boy, Edward, oops, I mean Elisha—to “oh no, I feel terrible now for what I’ve done to you—how delicious!” Oh, right, Elisha’s being raped and is enslaved! Dang, I keep forgetting that part.

If it were clear that Docile was BDSM-slave-fic and not Handmaid’s Tale-type oppression paralleling real lived experiences, there might be room for analysis. At best, and to do the author’s work for them, I might assume Elisha’s world was created by a rich elite (possibly an all-white one, since POC characters rate low, with one named—Ugh, really!—Onyx), who have used debt as a means of enslaving people to fulfil whatever whim comes to mind. Since the novel takes place in Maryland, I might assume that its history will be important and come into play—but perhaps the location was instead chosen arbitrarily or was merely convenient for an author who is a current resident of the state, rather than being integral to the plot.

Because here’s what most people do know about Maryland: it made the enslavement of Africans legal in 1664 and became one of the first places to establish a plantation colony and slave society. Today, the effects of this forced system still exist in its descendants, as well as the governing systems still bound by blind white privilege. Just walk into a Maryland Walmart and you’ll see how the checkouts are unwittingly segregated by race.

Here’s what you might not know, as told in 1937 by Richard Macks, a survivor of African enslavement from Maryland:

The slave traders would buy well-developed young girls with fine physique to barter and sell. They would bring them to the taverns where there would be the buyers and traders, display them and offer them for sale. At one of these gatherings a colored girl, a mulatto of fine stature and good looks, was put on sale. At night she was taken by the trader to his room to satisfy his bestial nature. She could not be coerced or forced, so she was attacked by him. In the struggle she grabbed a knife and with it, she sterilized him and from the result of injury he died the next day … she was charged with murder. (WPA Slave Narrative Project, 1973.)

Or this, witnessed by William J. Anderson in 1857:

My master often went to the house, got drunk, and then came out to the field to whip, cut, slash, curse, swear, beat and knock down several, for the smallest offense, or nothing at all. He divested a poor female slave of all wearing apparel, tied her down to stakes, and whipped her with a handsaw until he broke it over her naked body. In process of time he ravished her person and became the father of a child by her. (William J. Anderson, Life and Narrative of William J. Anderson, Twenty-Four Years a Slave, 1857)

To ignore the parallel in a story about a debt-slave who is raped and abused by his Maryland owner renders a work either a simple example of poor writing or a form of racism (or both). Since the editor, literary agent, and writer are all white, they could be unaware of their racism; this, though, is not an excuse, but a glaring call to action for all of us to locate and identify racism all the way through the chain (from distributors to bookstores and magazines and so on), so as not to harm others. At the very least, Docile lacks an understanding of the history that created racism.

In this way, Docile lacks a fully formed world on almost every level. On Elisha’s twelve-hour walk to the ODR office, for example, besides a random mention of flowers in front of the elite-rich homes, there is no view of the debtors' prison, or the court that will end the book, or even other dociles out being trafficked and enslaved—nothing that might allow the reader a view of how this system works. But one assumes that the novel considers this to be okay, since the only drive is to get to the juicy sex parts.

Because Docile never cycles Elisha’s enslavement into anything more than a hopeful cash-cow of the Fifty-Shades-of-Gray variety. While dancing around bargained consent and rape-romance, we’re left with a novel lacking substance—and since we live during a time in which slavery still exists through sex trafficking and labor enslavement—this on the back of four-hundred-plus years of African, Caribbean, and Indigenous enslavement [1]—it’s hard not to wonder what the author was aiming for. There was certainly no consideration given to the trauma that descendants of slavery might experience in reading the book. Reading about anyone being raped to this step-by-step degree should also have a disclaimer—just saying—and, at the least, a trigger warning on the cover for rape survivors who might want the choice to avoid it. Shame on you TOR. Responsibly rectify this with warning stickers sent to bookstores, please.

Instead, all of these experiences are trivialized in order to get to the BDSM-play and fantasy fucking. The book is being marketed as LGBTI inclusive, because of its male-on-male sex. But the mere presence of this sort of thing does not make a novel properly queer - that’s a common assumption made by the hetero-privileged, but it’s simply not the case. Is this a PRIDE-inclusive novel? I don’t think so, because of the way it fumbles its depictions of sexuality.

The slave-sex genre is also just that: an erotic fantasy between captor and slave. It has an audience that will readily appreciate Szpara’s work, which makes it doubly surprising that Tor didn’t target this readership, but released it as any ol’ adult-contemporary novel, attempting also to plug it as a dystopia, well-timed alongside the Hunger Games prequel May 2020 release. The pink cover—since all gay things are pink, ugh, the stereotypes!—made me think “teen novel,” making it more misleading still.

What’s most disheartening about Docile is that another writer, perhaps a POC with an #ownvoices story about overcoming racism and privilege, as well as debt, could have written something more subtle given the same subject matter; perhaps a different LGBTI author, too, might’ve offered greater awareness, instead of trivializing (jeopardizing) years of civil rights advocacy with the goal of being seen as equal.With so much competition for good, thoughtful writing, even the space given to Docile in this review is already too much: you will either enjoy BDSM sex between white men and read it, or you will join a growing list of people asking for Tor Books to explain themselves for a misfire. (NOTE: Curiosity-spenders should consider making a donation to a human rights organization to end slavery instead of supporting it.)

Let me ask that question I pose to late-semester students again: What are you most afraid of for the future and next generation? When my students turn the question on me, I tell them that I fear young people will lose their hope to create change—that essentially, they’ll give up and let someone else fix the world’s problems. And then I fill the room with hundreds of examples of people from diverse walks of life who have and are making a difference. They feel the stir of inspiration and call to action; they replace inertia with ideas to make their small effort in the world.

That is where our future lies, not here in Docile.


[1] The first enslaved Africans appear on shipping documents as cargo (not human beings) in 1619. (See: Kennedy Randall. Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, Pantheon Books, 2002.) [return]

In response to reader comments, Hart St. John has clarified some passages of their argument.

Hart St. John is an LGBTI writer, activist, and former resident of St. Mary’s County, Maryland, as well as a college professor, offering lectures on writing and the history of African, Caribbean, and Indigenous enslavement in America.
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