pills and starships

Wednesday, July 9, 2014 |
There are moments of serendipity in any given reading life, when you take on a book by faith and/or chance, and you end up with something better and more beautiful than you ever expected.  The cover and title of Lydia Millet's Pills and Starships intrigued me enough that I read the back cover copy – twice.  I’ve been drowning a bit under the weight of books I promised to read, so it seemed foolhardy to take on another.  I am glad I didn’t listen to my practical side, because Millet’s YA debut is a gem: unnerving and luminous in equal measures.

pills and starships by lydia millet book cover
In this richly imagined dystopic future brought by global warming, seventeen-year-old Nat and her hacker brother Sam have come by ship to the Big Island of Hawaii for their parents' Final Week. The few Americans who still live well also live long—so long that older adults bow out not by natural means but by buying death contracts from the corporates who now run the disintegrating society by keeping the people happy through a constant diet of "pharma." Nat's family is spending their pharma-guided last week at a luxury resort complex called the Twilight Island Acropolis.

Deeply conflicted about her parents' decision, Nat spends her time keeping a record of everything her family does in the company-supplied diary that came in the hotel's care package. While Nat attempts to come to terms with her impending parentless future, Sam begins to discover cracks in the corporates' agenda and eventually rebels against the company his parents have hired to handle their last days. Nat has to choose a side. Does she let her parents go gently into that good night, or does she turn against the system and try to break them out?

But the deck is stacked against Nat and Sam: in this oppressive environment, water and food are scarce, mass human migrations are constant, and new babies are illegal. As the week nears its end, Nat rushes to protect herself and her younger brother from the corporates while also forging a path toward a future that offers the hope of redemption for humanity. This page-turning first YA novel by critically acclaimed author Lydia Millet is stylish and dark and yet deeply hopeful, bringing Millet's characteristic humor and style to a new generation of young readers.

Natalie (Nat for short) and Sam’s parents have elected to do what many of their generation have done: sign a contract to manage their death experience.  The world has irretrievably altered in their parents’ lifetime: oceans have risen, much of the world’s wildlife has gone extinct, and massive storms and bugs now take out huge numbers of the surviving human populations.  This change has gone hand in hand with the rise of corporations, who offer to take over the entire death experience once life gets too harsh or depressing.  When Nat and Sam discover some of the ugly truths beneath the veneer of their parents’ death resort experience, they must make a decision to cooperate, or (possibly) work for something bigger and better – Earth’s future.

I’ll admit it first thing: I did not know how Millet would pull off this concept.  Widespread mood-enhancing pharmaceutical use, climate disaster, all-seeing corps that hark back to Big Brother – it seemed like an unlikely combination.  All credit to the author, because she made that mish-mash come together, in a believable, fascinating fashion.  There’s the dystopian element, of course, but if I had to put this in a sci-fi subcategory, I’d probably label it as an apocalyptic novel, of the environment-crashing variety.  After two chapters, I had no doubts that what I was reading was not only well-executed and smart, but lovely as well.

The story is told from Nat’s point of view – she’s writing in a journal that the corp provides to all ‘survivors,’ to help them cope during their relatives’ last week.  It’s first-person narration, with Nat recounting events as they occur each day, along with flashback scenes and memories.  The writing itself is vivid, immediate, and poignant.  As the days go by, much of Earth’s recent history is laid out, along with Nat’s personal feelings and processing of what death means.  At the same time, she’s in a pharmaceutical-induced fog, and anxious about her (and Sam’s) future.  It could be cluttered and sappy, but it’s not.  Millet writes this far-future teen’s feelings and experience in a way that made my (rather jaded) heart light up.

Of course, Nat’s preoccupations inform the novel, so this is a book that deals with themes of beauty, perception of and interaction with the natural world, a reluctant questioning of the status quo, death, and environmental apocalypse.  These issues were treated with care, even in the short space of the novel (and within the constraints of Nat’s narrow point of view) – something that counts as an impressive mark in the book’s favor.  The dystopia/sci-fi elements, while decidedly soft, were well-executed. 

Millet evokes feeling by writing directly about emotion, yes, but this is no sloppy, adjective-filled wonderland.  It’s pitch-perfect, dark and lonely at times, but filled with loveliness for all that, and at its core it takes a deep and abiding interest in the natural world.  An added bonus, in case you aren’t already running to the bookstore?  Pills and Starships features a diverse heroine, and indeed, entire supporting cast.  This is a smart, soulful book that deals with heavy issues.  On top of that, it’s entertaining, can't-put-it-down reading.  I call that a straight #win.  And I kind of want to hand it to everyone I know who has ever expressed interest in young adult fiction.

Recommended for: those who appreciate inspired writing, fans of young adult sci-fi and dystopian fiction, and especially anyone who enjoyed Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series or Ann Brashares’ The Here and Now.

Fine print: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher for review consideration.  I did not receive any compensation for this post.


Jenny @ Reading the End said...

I'm intrigued against my will! I was just saying to someone last month that dystopian books that take aim at pharmaceutical companies seem a little heavy-handed to me at this point. But you have made this sound great, and with the diversity, and the cover... How can I resist?

Liviania said...

I haven't heard of this one, but it sounds terrific. Does the book touch on euthanasia, or avoid it since the older people aren't terminally ill?

Cecelia said...

Jenny: I mean, any book with the pharmaceutical plot point is likely to be a *little* heavy-handed, but I felt that this one wasn't preaching (partially because the heroine herself wasn't sure she wanted to live without some of the 'pharma'). And I really did enjoy it. But I haven't overloaded myself with dystopian fiction, either. I hope you let me know what you think if you read it!

Cecelia said...

Liviania: It doesn't really touch on euthanasia, no. Everyone seems to purchase their 'contracts' before they reach decrepit. Great question!

Sto-ology said...

I love serendipity - from the tales of Serendip - ancient Middle East narrative - aka synchronicity - Jung.

Anyway - as a Teacher of teens here in NYC - I am concerned about the flood of dystopian novels and movies over the last 5-10 years. Why not utopia - too boring? We as a society become what we consume - as in self perpetuating projection. Food for thought - just saying!

Charlotte said...

sounds intriguing! I'll add it to my list.

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