Pills and Starships by Lydia Millet

Pills and Starships felt very much like a modern take on Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four, translating a lot of the ideals and literary feel of 1950s dystopian projections into our current zeitgeist. Less bleak than Orwell’s vision (perhaps to appeal to the YA genre in which this book is written), the death of individuality is replaced with the death of the ecosystem. Ultimately, an easy to follow read with a slow first half and a lot of musing and proselytizing by the end. If you liked Orwell’s novel, you’ll likely enjoy this as well.

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Story: In a future Earth with an ecosystem destroyed by humans, teens Nat and Sam are in Hawaii to go through the 5-day process of their parents ending their long lives. Nat is given a book to write down her thoughts about her parents choosing to die and that is what we are reading. She is ambivalent and goes along with the program at the ‘death resort’ out of respect for her parents’ and their decision. But her younger brother Sam is not sanguine; he’s angry and rebellious and isn’t following the plan. For Sam knows more about why his parents have chosen to end their lives and it isn’t because they feel they’ve lived too long (in a world where 80s and 90s are middle age). Sam, though his persistence, will ‘wake up’ Nat from her phamacologically-induced turpor to the reality of the world and the corporations who control it.

Nat is a very passive heroine; don’t expect her to come out fighting as with a Katniss or Tris. It’s her brother that is the rebel and truth seeker – and the catalyst for her awakening. But unlike so many YA dystopian, there is no romance, Nat isn’t a unique snowflake, and she doesn’t lead or rebel so much as get caught along the ride. Indeed, Nat rarely has any strong emotion or thought about any subject throughout the entire book and follows the lead of others at all times.

Pills and Starships feels very much like the spirit of our time – 2014. As Nineteen Eighty Four projected the outlook of the 1950s through a worst-case scenario dystopian future, so too does Millet read the outlook of our era and then take it to a logical future conclusion. Evil corporations replace evil government, everyman middle age man is replaced by everywoman teen girl. Perpetual wars against other governments are replaced by perpetual wars against the environment. The awakening partner is a sibling, not a love interest (perhaps the one aspect that doesn’t fit a YA cliche, which would have had a mysterious young man as the awakening agent). The control/calming estivation of the masses is done pharmacologically rather than through mediaspeak. The rebellion is protecting ecology rather than freedom of thought.

So yes, there are a lot of ideas in this book. The environmental messages (from the convergence zones/great garbage patch to global warming) come continually, hard, and heavy. Don’t play a drinking game with the phrase ‘carbon footprint’ or you’ll be on the floor passed out drunk fast. This does, at times, read like a greenpeace manifesto – a future with no more ocean creatures, catagory 6 storms, melted polar icecaps flooding and reshaping the land, and the apathy of the people in the 21st century who caused it. This is a future with no hope.

Two things did ruin this book’s experience for me. First, the terrible and very cliche cover. A girl in an old fashioned WWII type gas mask makes NO sense for the book and is such a tired graphic trope; the cover looks like a third rate 1970s sci fi pulp. Second, the random title of the book when the story is about people who inject themselves or are drugged through their food (there are few, if any, actual pills); the only starship being the fictitious ‘astronaut’ looking at what happened to the Earth that Nat uses as a person to whom she can write about the Hawaii death trip. The title just doesn’t suggest the story and I had a hard time getting excited about reading the book as a result.

In all, despite the heavy messages, this is an easy read and raises some interesting thoughts about our future but mostly about our present.

Reviewed from an ARC.

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This entry was posted in ARC, Book Reviews, dystopian, YA. Bookmark the permalink.

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