Tor describes the book as a “science fiction parable about love and sex, wealth and debt, abuse and power.” Szpara describes the book as “really gay.” As it turns out, both descriptions are true.
Szpara could have kept the story relatively simply by making Docile a tale of exploitation and rebellion, but he isn’t content to portray the wealthy Alex simply as an abusive patron who brainwashes his compliant docile, Elisha. Instead, their relationship is complicated by society’s efforts to make servitude more palatable by providing dociles with rights (like the right to adequate food and medical care, the right to vote, etc.) and a drug (which Elisha scandalously refuses) that helps dociles forget their suffering.
Szpara also dares to have Alex and Elisha fall—or at least think they are falling—in love. This raises a host of questions. Who is Alex falling in love with—the real Elisha or the man he’s created through his harsh “training”? Does Elisha have the agency to love after being dominated and manipulated into becoming Alex’s perfect companion?
As Szpara tells me in his interview on New Books in Science Fiction: “People say to Elisha ‘maybe you just like this kind of sex because it’s the kind of sex you were taught to have. Maybe you just like Alex because he taught you to like him. Maybe you only like playing the piano, or these clothes because Alex gave them to you.’ And then he has to ask himself: ‘But they’re the things that I like. Do I have to not like the things that I like because they were thrust upon me?’”
Szpara continues: “So many things are thrust upon us by people, by capitalism, by people who are making decisions above us and handing them to us and telling us to like them. At a certain point you just say, ‘Oh hey, I like this, and I accept it. You know, I like this new song by Lady Gaga even though I hear it a thousand times a day, and that’s probably why I like it, but I just do. I enjoy listening to it.’ …We don’t exist in worlds where we can always make pure and good decisions all the time.”