Pills and Starships
“A deep read, but fast; it lingers in your mind long after it’s been read.”
Pills and Starships is a dystopia somewhere along the lines of 1984 or Children of Men that somehow manages to be less bleak and more hopeful despite focusing almost entirely for the first half of the book on the planned death of the lead character's parents. Quite an accomplishment.
The setting of the book is not quite post-apocalyptic; more like during apocalyptic. Environmental collapse has occurred, and the world map has been changed by massive storms, famine, endless rounds of exotic new diseases, sea level rise, and pretty much all the worst-case scenarios being foretold today.
Pets are illegal because they cost too much on their carbon footprints. So are farm animals, zoos, all petroleum vehicles, even individual homes. Almost all governments are defunct, and ruling of every aspect of a person's life from birth to death is handled by massive service corporations, and everyone only knows what the corps want them to know.
Nat, the teenage older-sister protagonist and point of view, wants to collect beautiful things to counteract all the fear and stress and mistrust. Her brother, Sam, is a hacker who knows some of what the corps don't want them to know, and he won't toe the line because of what he knows. This causes trouble when the family heads to Hawaii to a spa-retreat sort of place where their parents have decided to spend their last week before they voluntarily take their own lives.
Living in the dying world while knowing exactly what they lost is too much, it's half-stated for their entire generation, and they're ready to go.
While on the island, however, Nat finds that almost everything she knows about the world is wrong. She finds out that the corps are much more sinister than they let anyone know. That there's still a little hope in the world if you're willing to get off the mood-leveling drugs everyone is fed in the food and water they're given in their closed-off homes. That even her own parents were not what she thought.
This is heavy stuff, and a little too close to the current fears right now, but the book manages never to get too dark. It gets sad, but it doesn't get depressing, partly because there's a sweet gentleness to Nat, even when she's willing to let the drugs do their work before she commits to change, and partly because the whole tone of the book is cautiously hopeful, thoughtful, and handles these topics gently.
The whole story is told through the journal entries Nat is supposed to do as part of the mourning process (mourning now including the whole last week before a scheduled death), and she's the sort who care deeply, worries more than she gets angry, forgives others more than herself, and intentionally chooses to look for the good in situations.
It's not an unseen conceit, but it's a charming one, and it works so well that there are almost none of those awkward moments epistolary works tend to have where they forget that they're supposed to be written before and after the events they cover.
Nat is also is a chatty point of view, a little lonely and willing to talk about all the strange and dire situations that are commonplace in her world as well as the ones she learns about that were previously hidden. This makes for a detailed and very clear picture of the world and the stakes, so that by the time the stakes are raised by a megastorm in the last act, the readers knows exactly what could be lost—and what could be gained.
Pills and Starships is a sad book, an aware book, but not too heavy handed. In fact, it's quite readable, the sort of story that flows quickly, affecting the emotions along the way, and ending on an uplifting enough note that it feels like a triumph even though there's still a lot of uncertainty and struggle ahead.
Pills and Starships is a nice counterpoint to the grim view of the future a lot of current YA realistic (no supernatural elements) dystopias seem fixated on, a lesson in how to craft a story so that actual possible consequences are discussed without beating the reader about the head. A deep read, but fast; it lingers in your mind long after it’s been read.