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.
As I have already written here, I was less than happy with J.K. Rowling’s continuing quest to invalidate trans people. Of course, Rowling is in a tax bracket where nothing mortal can really impact her, but the same is not true of the people she is putting in danger through her willful ignorance.
There is very little I can do to help, other than be an ally myself, but I found a nice way to express my feelings.
Recently, I started work at my local indie bookstore (“Unabridged Books” in Chicago). It is smack in the middle of our gay neighborhood Boystown, so I convinced them to set up a display of trans and non-binary authors of fantasy and science fiction. So far the support has been overwhelming, and we are ordering other titles that we didn’t have in stock at the time.
If you too feel grossed out by Rowling’s transphobia, and wonder what you can do, supporting a SFF trans or non-binary author is a great first step.
Last year was the first time I actually went to a panel on
writing. Chicago Comics and Entertainment Expo is a comic-con, rather
than a professional one, but they had acquired some impressive names, such as
Mary Robinette Kowal and Cory Doctorow, among others (both of whom are absolute
rock stars by the way). This time around the stable was even larger, with
people such as John Scalzi, Terry Brooks, and Sam Sykes, as well as a number of
first-time authors like K.M. Szpara and Chris Kluwe, and a serious presence of
the Horror and Young Adult variety, spearheaded by Joe Hill and Rainbow Rowell
I focused on the SFF panels, which took the biggest chunk of my convention weekend, and it was an energizing (and a tiny bit frustrating) experience. Despite the well thought out panel topics, the actual result seemed to always amount to “writers talking about writering”, which I totally loved. And listening to people you admire share their experiences in the field you ascribe to, helps tremendously to humanize and demystify said field.
On the other hand, having people talk about living your life’s dream when you sometimes feel so far away from achieving it, can be a bit depressing (beer helps with that, by the way). More than anything though, it paints in stark colors the simple fact that the steps to traditional publishing are very simple, very accessible, and each one requires tremendous amounts of work, patience, and determination. There are no short cuts. But in its own way, this is motivating as well.
K.M. Szpara and the importance of being earnest. Even among a group as diverse as the panels at C2E2 offered, Szpara stood out to me, and not only because I had practically just finished his book (or because, I was somehow the fanboy who got to be his first signee). He approached both of his appearances (“Tor Presents: Chaos and Cosmos” and “The Devil You Know”) with a mixture of thoughtfulness and passion that really resonated with me. An awareness of the current field, mixed with an impish attitude that I, in my rigid glory, can only admire from a distance. Plus, raising awareness of the important issue of whether Dolores Umbridge would make a good dom.
One thing that stuck with me was his advice on approaching fiction writing with the abandon of a fanfic writer. No fear of censorship, no need to worry about market or reception. It is a constant struggle and a subject of endless second-guessing for me, trying to determine whether I write a certain way because I want to, or because I think that’s how it’s “supposed” to be written. It was refreshing to hear someone who has achieved success vouch for the former. And though of course one can’t just ignore all external factors when pursuing traditional publishing, it is a nice reminder all the same that ultimately you write better when your primary drive isn’t worry about what the market might expect.
Zack Jordan and the value of showmanship. Zack appeared on only one panel – “Authors on ‘The Best Advice I Ever Got’” – which makes sense, considering his first book, The Last Human, is not even out yet (it is scheduled for late March). That particular panel quickly became a conversation about editing and author reaction thereof, and Jordan made the very important point that if you are trying to get published and sell your work for moneys, then you are no longer writing just “for yourself”. And the editor is the person whose job is to champion the book, not stifle the author, provided of course that the two are a good fit.
What was interesting to me about him though, was not the panel, but rather his booth on the main floor, glued to the Del Rey stand. Jordan, who has background in tech (one assumes) startups had set up a whole performance installation where he and a couple of other dudes in jumpsuits were “scanning” the crowd for potential humans, and issuing honest-to-Cthulhu, printed on the spot ID cards of your actual race, with picture and everything. Beyond the fourth wall, he was also handing out advance reading copies of The Last Human, and when I questioned him about the whole thing, he told me that Del Rey had provided the booth space, and he had set up everything else, from his helpers, to the card printers, the scanning app, all of it.
Moral of the story? For obvious market reasons, first time SFF writers are nobody’s budget priority. But if you are good at selling yourself, you can make a big impression with limited resources. Now if only I could in any way leverage classical violin training for PR…
John Scalzi and the JOHN FUCKING SCALZI!!! Perhaps a little context is necessary. I am sure I will end up writing about this in a bit more detail in the future, but suffice to say that The Collapsing Empire was the book that made me decide I was going to get off (on?) my ass and actually write a damn novel. Later that same year, You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop To A Coffee Shop: Scalzi on Writing was the collection of blog posts that made me decide I was going to pursue a writing career like a real boy.
So, while I wouldn’t credit Scalzi’s work with the inspiration for my own writing, his personality has definitely been directly responsible for my believing I can do this. And meeting him in person was such an amazing experience. He is a smug dork in the best possible way, and despite having the second largest autograph line after Terry Brooks, he spent a lot of time chatting with everyone and being friendly as hell. In the end, he told me to “keep writing, and don’t dare stopping”, and in my head canon, he is greatly invested in my success.
This is by no means the extent of my impressions of the convention or the writers I met there, but most of my other experiences boil down to small anecdotes, reinforcements of personal feelings, and some truly encouraging advice and raw emotion from Sam Sykes, who I shamefully had not read a word by until the very morning of C2E2 — a mistake I am currently fixing with enthusiasm. Also worth mentioning is Chris Kluwe , who was insanely charming and showed me that just because I am a bigot who thinks sportsball is dumb, doesn’t mean sportsball people can’t be thoughtful or have meaningful contributions outside of hoops, or whatever it is you do in the NFL.
Overall, after nearly a decade of walking around booths of comic books, artwork, and toys, standing in lines for autographs and photo ops with cast members of Firefly and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I am discovering that my inner diligent student likes sitting in panels discussing the craft and business of writing more than pretty much anything else a con might offer. So I am definitely ready to test this theory at a professional lit-con. Hopefully, I get a chance later in the year.
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.
It may have already become evident from the Reading Updates so far, that I tend to change plans mid-stride. My reading habits are not entirely chaotic, and if anything, the act of putting them down on this blog has helped tremendously in keeping me on track. But sometimes one encounters extenuating circumstances. Getting ARCs of books I’ve been anticipating, is one such. Another, are conventions. Chicago Comics and Entertainment Expo (or C2E2) is happening soon, and there are several panels with science fiction and fantasy writers. Some of them I have never heard of. A few have been on my to-read list for a while.
And a couple have changed my life and inspired me to pursue writing as a career.
But either way, this means catching up on some books I had not planned to read yet. Not that I am complaining, it’s always great to become acquainted with a new author. Now I only have to find the balance between excitement at specific titles, guilt from not not following my plans, and the urgency of reading books before the convention comes, so I am not a total idiot if I interact with people I admire.
In the end, I get to read a ton. So I still win ^_^