One of the great problems with discussions of climate change is the bleak future they tend to paint. In the worst cases, the ice caps melt, rising seas flood coastal cities, diseases mutate and run rampant, institutions value people by their carbon footprint, and mega-storms wreak havoc on what’s left. Add to this rising economic inequality and the domination of the poor by the rich and you have a pretty depressing mix. It’s no wonder most people would rather talk about the latest celebrity meltdown. Unless you’re a writer. In that case, climate change is a setup for a perfect dystopia.
That’s what debut author Lydia Millet gives us in Pills and Starships, an engaging epistolary novel that’s part science fiction and part cautionary tale. It features Nat, a bright if detached 17-year-old girl living as one of the privileged few a couple of decades after the “tipping point,” when global warming finally pushes the earth over the edge. For the first half of Pills and Starships, Nat appears to take her world in stride, aware that things have gone to hell, compared to what the earth was like according to her elderly parents, but accepting things as they are. Don’t all old people claim that things were better in the past? All a young person knows is what they know. History is bunk.
Nat’s own world is about to reach its tipping point, as she, her parents, and her precocious 14-year-old brother sail to Hawaii (no high carbon-footprint flying in this world) for a week-long ritual culminating in the planned demises of her mother and father. Apparently tired of life and ready to abandon their teenage children, mom and dad have purchased a death contract offered by a “service corp,” an iteration of a favorite dystopian bugaboo, the faceless corporation. We meet only the front-line drones of this organization, and Millet spends more time satirizing them than making them whole characters. Millet can be forgiven for a certain cynicism; she fights the current crop of corps during her day job for an environmental organization. Nat’s parents are better rounded, and true-to-form for teens and most adults, the youth barely knows her mom and dad until they’re nearly gone. Unfortunately, Millet reveals a disturbing, even violent past for Nat’s mother that the author appears ready to bless. Mom’s past behavior, no matter the good intentions, is something no one should admire.
The strength of Pills and Starships is Nat’s own personal growth, as she begins to learn (passively, because her brother does most of the legwork) that the world is more than it seems, that the service corp isn’t as benign as it appears, that the ubiquitous “pharma” meant to protect against disease and ease the pain of everyday life is doing more harm than good, and that there are other ways of thinking about how to live. This is the job of every teenager, and Nat succeeds, leaving the reader of Pills and Starships with a sense of hope that we’ll get through this climate change gauntlet.