Pills and Starships by Lydia Millet

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Pills and Starships by Lydia Millet

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Category: Teens
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Nigethan Sathiyalingam
Reviewed by Nigethan Sathiyalingam
Summary: Set in a disintegrating future, Pills and Starships is an interesting and thoughtful read with the occasional flash of brilliance, but a little lacking in page-turning urgency and subtlety at points.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 283 Date: July 2014
Publisher: Akashic Books
ISBN: 9781617752766

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Ravaged by the effects of global warming, disease and an increasingly unsustainable population, the future in which Nat and her brother Sam live is a far cry from the world of their parents' youth. Corporations run the remains of their society, forbidding the birth of new children, using a ubiquitous supply of pharma drugs to keep the population in check, and perhaps most sinister of all, taking control of death itself. Riddled by depression Nat's parents have decided to buy a death contract to take their Final Week in a slickly engineered resort in what remains of Hawaii. As the days tick down, Nat finds herself following the lead of her more cynical and rebellious brother, and begins to genuinely question the system that she has previously accepted all her life; however, what chance do two teens possibly have against the all-seeing, all-powerful corps?

This world that Lydia Millet has vividly brought to life is a grim and seemingly hopeless dystopia, where environmental disaster has ground human progress to a dead halt. Most ecological systems have collapsed, taking with them the majority of wildlife. As if the floods and natural disasters weren't enough, a multitude of infective diseases have taken out large swathes of human population and left the remains too scared to interact with each other. Nat and Sam have lived the majority of their lives inside an immunised complex, where they only see their parents and each other face to face. All other social interaction is done through the 'face', a vast online network. Furthermore, with the illegality of childbirth being established soon after their births, Nat and Sam are some of the last teenagers left in the country. The whole death contract system feels surreal and often obscene, and the worst of it all is that so few characters are able to see through the glossy veneer presented by the corporations, such are the effects of the ubiquitous pharmaceuticals that pervade everyday lives. There are a number of broad themes weaved into the background of this dystopia, but the author has done a really impressive job of bringing them all together to create a world that is irretrievably different to our own, yet terrifying in its plausibility.

Despite having grown up in the same confined, isolated world, Nat and Sam are very different people. Nat is thoughtful and interested in the world around her, but is more content to live inside naïve dreams. Meanwhile, her brother is thirsty for knowledge, suspicious, rebellious and far from content to accept the status quo set out by the corps; he's the more interesting character at first glance, so the decision to tell the story entirely through Nat's journal entries is a risk, but one that does pay off. She's a different breed of heroine to the likes of Katniss from The Hunger Games. Even through her awakening to the realities of the world around her, she remains a very passive character, a thoughtful observer reacting to the actions of the more exciting characters around her, as opposed to the figurehead at the forefront of events. And while this does make the book perhaps less exciting and immediately urgent, it makes for a refreshing change that allows the author to spend more time discussing interesting questions through Nat's thoughtful observations and views.

Nat's idiomatic voice does take a while to get used to. Especially early on, the writing occasionally feels a little disjointed and overly cluttered, a symptom of rushed world building as information is offloaded too quickly; the painting of the picture of the desolate future could have done with being more gradual and subtle. Some of the ecological messages, in particular, feel quite heavy-handed and again lacking in subtlety. Nonetheless, the writing still has a lot going for it. There are some clever references hidden in Nat's descriptions of the past, as well as occasional bits of really beautiful, lyrical prose.

Overall, while Pills and Starships doesn't quite have the gripping page-turning quality of some of my favourite YA dystopian novels, it makes for a refreshing change from the standard action-packed romance-heavy affair, and is worth checking out for fans of the genre.

Thank you to the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

The Carbon Diaries 2015 by Saci Lloyd is another diary-style novel, also exploring a future where climate change has run amok. Meanwhile, Slated by Teri Terry is the first book of one of my favourite trilogies of recent years, asking fascinating questions in an intelligent and subtly written way. Gemma Malley is another author who writes this style of dystopia really well, and The Declaration is well worth checking out.

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Buy Pills and Starships by Lydia Millet at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Pills and Starships by Lydia Millet at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Pills and Starships by Lydia Millet at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Pills and Starships by Lydia Millet at Amazon.com.


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