Pills and Starships by Lydia Millet

Reviewed By

A new literary movement has struggled out of the muck, stretched its legs, and howled into the air. It’s called “eco-fabulism,” anointed by a panel at the 2014 AWP Conference (titled “Fabulist Fiction for a Hot Planet!”) and re-anointed (or extra-anointed?) by Matt Bell in an interview with Sonora Review. Eco-fabulism refers to a group of texts that explore, in one way or another, mankind’s destructive tendencies regarding nature—a literary movement that, unfortunately, seems unlikely to fade out anytime soon. I write “unfortunately” not because the texts—which include Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road—are bad, but because, given the intractable problems of global warming, eco-fabulism seems like a type of fiction that could reflect American society for a long, sad while.

The ideas of eco-fabulism elevate Lydia Millet’s new book, Pills and Starships, beyond what it nominally is: a young adult novel. Of course, Millet is no stranger to elevating pieces of pop culture—consider the celebrity/animal stories of Love in Infant Monkeys, a Pulitzer Prize-finalist—but here, working within a genre, the failure of Pills and Starships becomes its greatest success: this is a YA novel that I can’t imagine anyone who normally reads YA novels wanting to read. And I don’t mean sensitive YA novels like John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, the current example of the genre that literary-fiction-types are allowed to admire; I’m talking about the clunky, bloodless prose of The Hunger Games or Divergent—novels that exist to eventually become cinematic blockbusters. Millet’s dense novel has more in common with philosophy than with fantasy.

Pills and Starships takes place in a post-apocalyptic future (i.e., mankind has reached the “tipping point” of global warming) too complicated to explain here, except to say that corporations and celebrities function essentially the same way they do in our current world: they attempt to merge greed and conscientiousness, but when the two become incompatible, greed wins. At the center of Millet’s novel is a family of four—Mom, Dad, fourteen-year-old Sam, and sixteen-year-old Nat (who narrates). They’ve come to Hawaii, staying at something resembling a resort—there are New Age gurus and nightly water shows—for a particularly depressing purpose: Mom and Dad have decided to die, and this is their last week with their children. In Millet’s future, death (including—for reasons I don’t quite understand—suicide) has become nearly impossible, and people live inordinately long lives. But what good is a long life in a world of post-global meltdown, in which babies are outlawed, the natural world is more-or-less eradicated, and diseases are so contagious that people rarely venture outside? Former hippies, Mom and Dad have watched the planet implode, and after so much horror and depression, they’ve simply had enough.

The goal of the week in Hawaii is for Nat and Sam to say goodbye to their parents through a series of sterile, feel-good exercises—therapy sessions and “Personal Time”—engineered by corporate America. Nat narrates the events in her corporation-provided journal (the chapters have headers like “Theme of the Day: Listening”), but she spends most of her time explaining the world to the reader—no easy task, which Millet herself slyly acknowledges when she caps off long passages of exposition with Nat’s sarcastic exasperation, like, “So anyhow,” or, “Phew,” or, “Sorry.” Meanwhile, Sam makes mischief, earning the (possibly deadly) ire of the corporation, which eventually requires him and Nat to flee into the countryside.

If this all sounds like fodder for YA adventure fiction in its most basic form, this is where Pills and Starships “fails”: As protagonists go, Nat proves fairly listless, rarely propelling the narrative, and mostly reacting to—and unpacking in great detail—the decisions of others. Millet’s novel is strangely plotted: most of the action happens in the third quarter, and it builds to a climax of emotional quiescence, in which characters look at one another and reach various forms of understanding (and also deliver additional exposition). But plotting isn’t the pleasure of Pills and Starships. (And, really, when has plotting ever been the pleasure of Millet’s fiction?) The pleasure of this book is how Millet creates a world that seems eerily similar to the one we live in now. The nouns of Millet’s future tend to be awkward portmanteaus: “movievids,” or “caffbev,” or “smallgolf,” all of which feel like the result of a child describing adult things with underdeveloped language. Elsewhere, the pharmaceutical companies in the novel peddle pills not only to adults but also to children, hooking them early, a strategy that recalls real-world fast food companies, or tobacco companies—or, hell, our own pharmaceutical companies. Then there’s the way that Millet’s characters engage with the world around them: through their interface, or “face,” which allows them to attend “faceschool,” and to have “facefriends,” an obvious echo of contemporary social media, and, perhaps, a critique of its coldness. But Millet, never a writer to settle into predictable patterns, manages to find beauty in ugly places, and at one point, Nat concedes that one thing they do have, “in the new world, is beautiful sunsets.” Here, Millet complicates the simplistic narratives that a movement like “eco-fabulism” might yield by showing that the planet, even after human beings have ravaged it, is still a complex, nuanced, and occasionally beautiful place.

There’s a moment midway through the novel where Nat, wandering through the resort, notices turtles for the first time. Based on their movements, she initially thinks they’re robots, before realizing with amazement that they’re the real deal. Reading this, I thought of all the times in my life that I’ve seen turtles—at zoos, on TV, growing up in Maine—but how I’d never really noticed them until the past couple months, walking my two cocker spaniels past a stream that runs through the Houston suburb where I now live. My dogs and I watch the turtles each night. In their slowness, they lounge on the edge of the stream, only to suddenly submerge when we get close, smart animals that they are, poking their heads above the water, peeking toward land to see if we’re still there. They seem such amazing animals to me all of a sudden—deliberate, smart, in control. I might not have thought of them in this way without Pills and Starships, and this is the best thing about Millet’s work: it makes you notice the small details of the natural world, makes you recognize those details as holy.

Benjamin Rybeck lives in Houston, where he is the events coordinator at Brazos Bookstore. His fiction has received notable story and special mention distinctions in The Best American Nonrequired Reading and The Pushcart Prize Anthology, respectively. His writing appears in Electric Literature's The Outlet, Kirkus Reviews, Ninth Letter, The Seattle Review, The Texas Observer, and elsewhere. More from this author →