Lydia Millet’s Pills and Starships takes us to a future world, decades past the Global Warming tipping point. Oceans have risen, species are extinct, and humanity is just trying to hang on by its fingertips. Massive corporations run things for the “First”, the upper, less-than-1% of society that can afford to have a private company manage their infrastructure for them. The rest of the world’s surviving population lives in a disease-ridden, nature-threatened squalor.
For those living in this corporate-controlled “First,” systematized euthanasia has become the standard cause of death. Average lifespans for these privileged few with access to genetic therapies and the best medical care available has sky-rocketed well past the 100-year mark. Rates of depression have also jumped, resulting in a contracted assisted suicide system that conveniently makes lots of money for the Corporations and keeps the population numbers under control.
I’m sure you’ve figured out by now that the presence of “Corporations” means that something suspiciously underhanded is going on. Along with their services in euthanasia services, the corporations provide an seemingly endless supply of mood-altering drugs that are consumed non-stop by the general population. Just how these drugs relate to the Corporate-run contract suicide system is the obvious question and one that is inevitably explored by the main characters of the book.
We meet Nat and her family on their way to a “euthanasia retreat” in Hawaii for the fulfillment of Nat’s parents’ “Final Week.” Over the course of the visit, Nat and her brother Sam are introduced to an intriguing alternative to the lives they have known, and concerns about their parents’ choice to end their lives deepen. As they slowly wean themselves away from their daily diet of “pharma” and start to take tentative steps toward the truth, the Corporate façade starts to crumble around them.
In spite of my interest in the story concept, I only felt about halfway pulled into this book. Almost everything about the main character’s involvement in the story is passive . . . from her journal-entry narrative to her tendency to let others make important decisions for her. She fails to act on even her strongest motivations, allowing her 14-year-old brother to take the initiative through much of the story.
Too much of the story’s action takes place off screen. Much of the book is spent in Nat’s internal musings about what might or might not be happening to other people or in long expository conversations with minor characters. What should be shocking revelations are, instead, calm narrations.
Millet likewise misses a vital opportunity to create a truly menacing villain. The pseudo-psychological tone adopted as part of the Corporate euthanasia process has a wonderfully creepy and dystopian feel to it. Regrettably, the Corporation is never given a central face and, therefore, never develops real teeth as an adversary. We never directly feel the consequences of the threat from the Corporation, or, for that matter, from Mother Nature herself. We experience the aftermath indirectly, from a considerable distance, and with little tangible damage to our characters.
Pills and Starships is an intriguing and realistic vision into a possible near future. This vision was compelling enough to keep me moving forward while the story lasted, but I’m afraid it wasn’t absorbing enough to leave much of a lasting impression.