For the holiday season, the bookstore I work at is making a display of all the employees’ favorite books of 2020. Each of us had to pick 5 favorite to put on there. My own list was pretty extensive, so choices had to be made. In the process of deciding what to choose, I left out sequels such as Harrow the Ninth, or massive cultural successes that obviously didn’t need my help to sell, such as Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste.
With that in mind, I am very happy with the end result. It unintentionally ends up promoting small press, debut authors, and queer identities, and this feels like the little bit that I can do to help this year suck a tiny bit less.
To clarify, this is not a ranked list. I love each of those five titles for different reasons, and I am not looking to pit them against one another. Feel free to click on each title to read my review.
My first reaction upon hearing that the Hunger Games was about to have a prequel, was confusion. As a moderate fan of the series, I welcomed another journey into the world of Panem, of course. But the 10th Hunger Games specifically? When there are so many potentially cooler moments in the past we could visit? Who asked for this?
Well, it turns out we all did. We just didn’t know it.
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes takes us 64 years into the past. The war between the Capitol and the 13 Districts has only been over for a decade, and reconstruction is slow. Parts of the once shining city are still in ruins. Its once celebrated noble families cling to the glory of old names, even when their riches are gone. And if it is even worse in the Districts, young Capitol Academy student Coriolanus Snow doesn’t care. Having lost both his parents in the war, he now lives in their once resplendent penthouse with his equally orphaned cousin Tigris and their “Grandma’am”, who is slowly going senile.
His one chance of a future lies in a scholarship to attend University after graduation. But to earn that, he must first prove himself in the first batch of Mentors in the Hunger Games. If he could lead his assigned Tribute to victory, his path forward is guaranteed. Except, he gets assigned the flamboyant performer Lucy Gray Baird from District 12. And all his carefully laid plans blow up.
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes could have easily been a very problematic book. President Snow is an unapologetic villain in the original trilogy. There was a risk that this prequel could have been a sappy attempt at sympathy. But Suzanne Collins elegantly makes us care for “Coryo”, while sowing the seeds of what he would become from the very beginning. He is earnest, but vain. Kind, but calculated. Friendly to the less fortunate, but secretly feeling superior to them. In a way, he is a victim of his class, surroundings, and history. But he also makes all his choices. At no point do we feel that he is too good to become the horrifying mastermind of 64 years later. But we also understand what path took him there, and we can understand him enough to like him.
This masterful balancing act transforms The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. Instead of a pointless prequel, it becomes a fascinating portrait of a historic figure, and the world that created it. But Collins also delivers an exciting story to go along with it. The Capitol is a far cry from its future splendor, and so are the Hunger Games. As Gamemakers experiment with new ideas to turn a bunch of starved kids killing each other inside a ruined coliseum into a national entertainment, we see the nuggets that will flower into the diabolical contest of the original trilogy. As expected, Coriolanus plays a huge part in this evolution, sometimes unwittingly, but often deliberately.
Lucy Gray Baird plays an important part both in the story, and in Coryo’s development. A talented singer from a group of traveling musicians, she is a cunning performer, and the reader is never 100% certain of her motives. Collins plays any possible connections to the original trilogy close to the chest, but suffice to say Lucy is the one who composes “The Hanging Tree”. Make of that what you will.
All in all, I enjoyed The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes quite a bit more than I expected. It fleshes out the past, and one of the world’s most important characters in an honest, complex, and exciting way. It is also perfectly self-contained, while welcoming the possibility of sequels. But whether Collins decides to continue the tale of Coriolanus Snow, or chooses to jump to a different point in time, I am excited for what comes next.
Another exercise from The 3 A.M. Epiphany, aiming at a split personality first person plural narrative, in which the perspective is from the point of view of the group, while each individual member is described in third. The point is to describe a melding of thoughts and feelings within a tight-knit group. For some reason, this instantly made me think of telepathy or data-share, which naturally led me to dystopian cyberpunk, because my brain is extremely predictable. I opted out of geshtalt-writing, because that felt like cheating. Anyway, here is my 600-word attempt.
We climbed to the top of the crater at dawn, and the Cluster
bloomed in front of us. An ugly, disjointed sprawl of prefab housing cubes,
piled precariously on top of each other, surrounding the dome of Paris like
filthy beggars reaching desperately for scraps. Which they were.
Jeriko flashed the sight to Axe, who was being led by Shim
while her goggles rebooted. Axe’s eyes had been taken the year past, sold to
some Corpling by her douchebag father, and replaced by a subpar implant that
kept glitching more and more with each passing month. She beamed now, happy to
see what Jeriko did. Shin tried her best too, with her sinth-leg being the
half-assed job that it was. Jeriko got flashes from her, discomfort making her
lose control of her priv-filters.
We were all broken in one way or another, none of us mint. But
together we were whole. The three of us were all we had, and we were about to
make a play for the big leagues.
Her goggles rebooted, Axe let go of Shim’s hand and walked
to where Jeriko stood, staring at the expanse of the Cluster. We flashed
comfort at one another, like little bursts of tranq, to keep us afloat. We knew
the dangers of crawling out of the crater were nothing, compared to those lying
ahead. Miles upon miles of slums, where cy- and chem-drugs were the norm, you
were either in a gang, or at the mercy of one, and everything that could be
sold, was fair game for trafficking. We had escaped poverty and were about to
Shim checked the blades in her arms, humming with
satisfaction when they vibrated in response under her skin. Jeriko’s hand
rested on the hilt of the sword on his back, and Axe’s memes were armed, ready
to debilitate any system that even so much as looked at us.
We had to make it through the warrens of the Cluster,
hopefully in one piece, or close to. We could ill afford to lose parts at the
best of times, and no time was less “best” than the times ahead. If we were
hacked or dismantled, the only help we could hope for, would be for a price,
and we could not pay. Axe’s weaponized meme-engine, Jeriko’s claymore, and
rations for a week’s journey had depleted our already non-existent resources.
All three of us had agreed that this was a one-way trip, and
it would end in one of two ways. Success. Or… not.
Because beyond the Cluster lay the dome of Paris. Few corp-cities
left on the ground, most of them having gone orbital a generation ago. And
fewer still even considered allowing outsiders in. And none of those were
anywhere the three of us could reach on foot. So Paris it was. Not a paradise,
by any stretch of the imagination. Corps had seen to that. But better than
where we had grown up, better than what future we had out here.
Axe knew deep-server ops. Jeriko was auged for strength and
speed. And Shin had connections sprawling throughout the Cluster. Not enough
for safe passage, of course. But between the three of us, we had a chance for a
foot at the door, and a hand hopefully strong enough to hold said door from
slamming on said foot.
The Cluster awaited us. Beyond that – the corp-dome. And
beyond that still, maybe a chance at the stars. We flashed emotion at
each other, the three of us sharing this experience, standing at the threshold
of a journey with no certain end. A hand reached, and another clasped it. A muscle
smile here, a flashed one there.
I first heard about K. M. Szpara’s Docile on an Our Opinions Are Correct episode titled “The New Anti-Capitalist Science Fiction”. My speculative passions tend to go in a different direction from the exploration of social justice themes, so I was initially only mildly interested. Then, as I listened to the interview and Szpara’s passion in describing his work, I became more and more interested. And when I was lucky enough to get an ARC of Docile, I jumped on the chance to read it early.
The story takes place in a maybe-future, maybe-alternative reality, where debt cannot be negated by bankruptcy or death, but is instead inherited throughout generations. The United States have been separated into trillionaires, the people who work for trillionaires, and the destitute, who are bent under backbreaking debt. A new system allows those to sell part or all of their debt to corporations or rich individuals in exchange for a portion of their life. They become a “Docile” — read, indentured servant — and retain only seven rights, most of which do them little good, since almost everyone opts to take Dociline. The drug makes one into an obedient blob of blandness, perfectly able to follow commands, but otherwise oblivious and unable to retain memories of the time when they are on it.
However, Elisha Wilder knows that Dociline is not as harmless as advertised. His mother once sold ten years of her life to chip away at the family’s debt, and the drug never left her system. So, when he decides to sell his entire life away to absolve his father and sister of what’s left, he uses one of his seven rights to refuse the drug. The problem? His new patron is heir to the pharmaceutical empire that makes Dociline. And once Alex Bishop realizes what he has inadvertently gotten himself into with Elisha, he sets on a mission to house-break his new Docile through a system of rules, punishments, and rewards. But this leads to effects neither of them could have anticipated.
Docile is a work of dystopian fiction. It is also, in a certain sense, a romance. But at its core, it is a story about agency, consent, and power dynamics. With a lot of butt stuff! The tag line on the front cover reads “There is no consent under capitalism”, and that theme permeates every page of the story. The relationship between Elisha and Alex is so unbalanced from the get go, that any argument pertaining to consent is blown out of the water. For Elisha, the “choice” is between signing his body autonomy away (and he is well aware the transaction will involve sex), or allowing his parents to go to debtor prison, or his 13-year old sister to take his place. It is a false choice.
However, Szpara does us dirty and makes us sympathize with Alex as well. Docile is written in the first person, present tense, alternating chapters between its two main characters. Were the story only told from Elisha’s point of view, it would be easy to think of his young patron as the villain. But we get to be in Alex’ head so often that it becomes impossible not to understand what forces have shaped him. And that’s where the tag line shows its brilliance. Because Alex has no more real freedom than Elisha does. He has to own a Docile to satisfy his family and board of directors, or he risks losing everything he has worked so hard to build. To him, this is just as much a “choice” as it is to the person whose life he has purchased.
Docile however treads delicately around this dynamic. Szpara never quite “excuses” what Alex does to Elisha, even if he helps us understand him. While he is not a full on “villain”, he is certainly in the wrong for a large portion of the story. And once the dynamic is broken — in a development that I found not only unexpected, but tremendously satisfying — there are no easy answers to the predicaments both characters have found themselves into.
Docile does its best to explore the complex layers of consent honestly, but Szpara does something that I have already seen criticized — he makes the sex scenes arousing. Like, really arousing. He is good at writing sex. Not the alluded, romantic, or symbolic type of sex either, but the smutty, borderline pornographic, things-are-called-what-they-are type of sex, with some kink as the cherry on top. However (and this is where Docile should probably come with some content warning), as the book makes it clear that Elisha’s “consent” is anything but, what Alex does to him is… well, rape. Should rape be “sexy” then?
No, it should not. But things are not as simple as that. As Szpara keeps us so close to the characters that we can taste their sweat, he allows them to experience what happens to them through their own senses. Elisha experiences his own breaking in a fog of confused arousal, and so I appreciate the author’s ability to convey that in the description of the act. Now, does this explanation work for everyone? No. Should it? Maybe not. But it did work for me and in a certain way, it heightened the experience of reading the story.
In the end, Docile is very clear about what its goals are, but it goes beyond the call of duty. I expected some exploration of late stage capitalism, some romance (though I was surprised at how complex Szpara’s approach to that was), perhaps a whiff of slave-fic. What I did not expect, was how well the book would be written. The nearly 500 pages flow with ease, the voice of each character so engaging, the plot so well paced, that I could not put the damn thing down. The book delivers on its promises, but more than that, it is entertaining as all fuck, smart, just the right amount of sexy, and both brutally, and tenderly honest. It is a big recommendation from me, and I cannot wait to see what Szpara does next.