Novel: Pills and Starships by Lydia Millet

I wouldn’t classify Lydia Millet’s wonderful adult novels as full-bore speculative fiction, but they do edge into that territory (Oh Pure and Radiant Heart), or read like mainstream novels that understand science fictional protocols (the beautifully written trilogy that begins with How the Dead Dream). Her first venture into young adult fiction, Pills and Starships (2014), shares many of the issues and themes of the adult work I’ve read, but definitely goes whole hog on the science fiction – to mixed effect.

Set in a worst-case scenario environmental dystopia, it’s the story of Natalie, a sixteen-year-old girl who travels with her parents and younger brother Sam to Hawaii for a rather disturbing family vacation. Mom and Dad have purchased a “Final Week” contract: both pushing 100, they’ve grown so upset by the near-total collapse of civilization that they’ve decided to euthanize themselves. The “package” involves one week at a resort hotel, and considerable doses of mood-warping pharmaceuticals for the whole family, both to ease the parents’ transition to death and to help the children cope with their grief. But Sam, a disillusioned hacker kid, doesn’t trust the corporates providing the service, and draws Natalie into a plan to go off their meds. Together, they get to the truth of the secret world underneath the doped, complacent surface of a dying corporate-run future.

As ever, Millet writes beautifully, and she has no trouble converting her lyrical writing style into a slangy, strong YA voice. Nobody writes more passionately about environmental concerns; the future, through Nat’s voice, codes as outrageous and extreme, but stems from very real and authentic problems. As environmental dystopias go, it’s a chilling and convincing vision. On the other hand, there is some science fictional clumsiness in the exposition, as Nat details the day-to-days of life in this future society; its world feels more explained than experienced. The plot isn’t particularly energetic, and the central conspiracy at the core of its mystery is not particularly surprising — at least, I don’t think it will be to seasoned  SF readers.

A good, worthy book, then, with a memorable voice and an important message, but one that could have used a tad more thematic subtlely and world-building finesse.

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