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Docile, K.M. Szpara

June 12, 2020

IMG_4006 (1)Often I read several books at once and this week I experienced a mix of ideas that I’m still sorting through, some of them from re-reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved at the same time as I was reading K. M. Szpara’s novel Docile, which is science fiction about the visceral and sexual topics associated with slavery. Both of them are upsetting books. Reading the middle part of Beloved made me tear up four times (I kept count). Reading Docile was so upsetting that twice I had to put the book down and do something else even though I spent the whole time wanting to know what was going to happen next. Like I do with movies or tv shows that might be scary, I limited myself to reading these books only in the middle of the day.

If you’ve watched the TV series Firefly and the movie Serenity (and if you haven’t, what are you waiting for?) you know another story about how it never works out when people try to make other people perfectly obedient. It’s a theme I could explore in kind of the same way I’ve explored the idea that necromancy never pays: another thing we learn from literature is that if you try to force someone else to do your will, eventually something will go wrong. Perhaps I should start making a list, but it would be unpleasant and upsetting and I’m not going to do it—although you are welcome to mention titles in the comments here.

The novel Docile has a subtitle: “There is no consent under capitalism.” It also has a “content warning: Docile contains forthright depictions and discussions of rape and sexual abuse.” So take it seriously when I tell you that this novel is upsetting. Since the issue of consent is central to the plot, however, there’s nothing gratuitous about any of the descriptions.

Elisha Wilder, the protagonist, has grown up in a family who for generations were professionals but who now work at subsistence farming because “when the next of Kin laws went into effect, all their debt passed down to their kids after they died, and to their kids, accumulating over decades before people got smart about that kind of thing and stopped getting married. Combine that with credit card debts, student loans, utilities, mortgages, and healthcare, and suddenly you’re living in the outer counties of Maryland, four million under. It’s taken us years to get even this far—to fend off debt collectors and the threat of debtors’ prison. Took Mom ten years and she only sold off one million.”

Before his family is sent to debtors’ prison or his little sister has to do it, Elisha decides to shoulder his family’s debt by going to the ODR—the Office of Debt Resolution—and selling himself as a “docile.” In this world, debt slaves, or dociles, perform the kinds of personal service that have usually been performed in our world by desperate and sometimes undocumented workers. Elisha’s contract is bought by Alex Bishop, heir to the Bishop family enterprises, makers of “Dociline,” a drug designed to make the docile state bearable. But Elisha has decided not to take the drug because his mother’s use of it did not wear off as advertised. So Alex sets out to train him to be docile, using both negative and positive reinforcement.

It works. The problem is that Alex finds he has fallen in love with Elisha while successfully rendering Elisha unable to reciprocate, because Elisha has no will of his own anymore. So the first half of the novel is the story of how Alex forces Elisha to have no will but his own and the second half is the story of how they both come to a realization that they must work to bring down the system that allowed Alex to take such complete control.

The narration shifts back and forth between Alex and Elisha, which keeps either of them from being entirely unsympathetic to the reader. For example, when someone who grew up with Elisha asks him “are you on Dociline?” the answer is “’No.’ I laugh, but nobody else does. My smile fades. ‘Isn’t it obvious?’”

On his first visit home (he gets one every six months) Elisha doesn’t understand why his family and friends find him so different. His father says to him “when the stallion got tangled in the fence, did you stand around and wait for orders? No. You held its insides together with the shirt off your back. Now, you’d probably thank the damn horse for letting you watch it die.”

On p. 224 of this 489-page novel, Elisha uses the word “plan” in an absolutely chilling way, right before Alex is forced to realize that he should not be Elisha’s “only source of happiness.” After we’ve heard it from Elisha’s point of view, with Alex asking him to “show me there’s a sliver of a human being left in there. That I haven’t fallen for my own creation,” then we hear Alex repeat the same point from his own perspective: “I am Dr. Frankenstein and I’ve fallen in love with my own monster.”

What makes it possible to bring down the system is a lawsuit brought against Elisha by Alex’s father alleging that Elisha “seduced” Alex and the defense against that lawsuit provided by a group called “Empower Maryland” who promise Elisha that they will “cover you, regardless of the verdict” and ask “are you in?” Alex thinks:
“Am I? I can’t afford an attorney on my own. Can’t defend myself without Empower Maryland or Veronica. Despite how lost I feel, this situation is familiar. That someone is asking my consent as if I have a choice. Pay to see a doctor or suffer. Register with the ODR or go to debtors’ prison. Go down on Dutch or be humiliated—punished. Impossible choices I’ve made, if you can call it that.
I know when I say ‘Yes,’ it’s the same, here.”

The biggest reason that Alex comes around is that two of his childhood friends, Dutch and Jess, talk to him about the big gaps in how he sees the world. They were on Dociline for a few years as children, so they remember nothing of those years, while Alex can remember it all:
“You were a child, so I can’t blame you for not comprehending that Jess and I were incapable of refusing to play with you. But, for fuck’s sake, Alex, you’re an adult, now….Jess and I worked our asses off at the lab to pay for college and graduate school and we still ended up with debt. Luckily, once you had your degree, you were handed the highest-paying job in the company and brought us along with you.”
When Alex responds, saying “because you deserved it,” Dutch replies
“of course we did, but that’s beside the fucking point. Lots of people deserve the job your parents handed to you. People as qualified, who work as hard or harder than you, Alex, and have no chance of achieving your success. I’m grateful for the opportunities our friendship’s provided, don’t get me wrong. But we do not have the same worldview.”

Elisha eventually comes back around enough to be able to articulate who is to blame for his mother’s condition (and by extension, his own situation):
“The federal government for enacting the Next of Kin laws. Debt collectors and cops for forcing us to choose between the ODR and debtors’ prison. Bishop Labs for inventing and producing Dociline. The State of Maryland for creating our debt resolution system, and the people for accepting it as normal. For perpetuating it.”

Notice those last two sentences. Even if you think this particular fictional world is too far-fetched to be much of a concern, you should not be dismissing what Elisha says. Over the past three years, people have accepted increasingly ludicrous systems as “normal” and have perpetuated them by not getting involved, staying on the sidelines, trying to scrape by as their own little patch of earth gets smaller and smaller.

How small has this little patch of earth gotten, the one where you’re going to make your last stand? Here’s a novel that could wake you up before it’s gone.

Update: If you would like my copy of Docile, comment and I will mail it to you.


3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 12, 2020 3:51 pm

    Eek. Sounds for plausible and chillingly terrifying. Like The Handmaid’s Tale in that it isn’t possible – and I would have held that view only a few short years ago – and yet it certainly is.

    The Chinese are trying a version of this as we live. Are our leaders? They’d like to be, some of them.

    • June 13, 2020 11:21 am

      The speech Dutch gives to Alex, about how “lots of people deserve the job your parents handed to you” is one I hear a lot in and around higher education circles.

      • June 13, 2020 1:23 pm

        The problem with ALL egalitarian schemes is that there is only one Oxford, one Princeton, one Caltech… and there will always be a competition for those spots – and only one president, etc.

        Now lots of entitled kids go to those schools, and some mess up.

        I’ll never know what it feels like to be one of the ‘special’ people. From some of what I observe, I don’t think I can handle it. Neither can many of those who try.

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