Pills and Starships: A Novel

Pills and Starships: A Novel

by Lydia Millet

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Overview

A teenage girl and her brother fight for their family’s future in a world devastated by climate change: “Thrillingly scary . . . There is much here to enjoy” (The Washington Post).
 
In a dystopian future brought about by global warming, seventeen-year-old Nat and her hacker brother, Sam, have come by ship to the Big Island of Hawaii for their parents’ Final Week. The few Americans who still live well also live long—so long that older adults bow out not by natural means but by buying death contracts from the corporates who now run the disintegrating society, keeping the people happy through a constant diet of “pharma.”
 
Nat’s family is spending their pharma-guided last week at a luxury resort complex called the Twilight Island Acropolis. Deeply conflicted about her parents’ decision, Nat spends her time keeping a record of everything her family does in the company-supplied diary that came in the hotel’s care package. While Nat attempts to come to terms with her impending parentless future, Sam begins to discover cracks in the corporates’ agenda—and eventually rebels against the company his parents have hired to handle their last days. Now Nat will have to choose a side, in this moving and suspenseful novel by a National Book Award–nominated author.
 
Winner of the Paterson Prize for Books for Young People
 
“A deep read, but fast; it lingers in your mind long after it’s been read.” —New York Journal of Books
 
“A brilliant dystopian novel . . . Beautifully written, dark but ultimately hopeful.” —The Buffalo News
 
“The details are terrific . . . and as the tension mounts it becomes a real page turner.” —The Independent
 
“Vivid, moving . . . Will attract mature teen fans of Divergent, Hunger Games, and similar apocalyptic survival stories.” —Midwest Book Review

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781617752841
Publisher: Akashic Books (Ignition)
Publication date: 05/19/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 1,098,961
File size: 3 MB
Age Range: 12 - 17 Years

About the Author

Lydia Millet is the author of seven novels for adults as well as a story collection called Love in Infant Monkeys (2009), which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Her first book for middle-grade readers, The Fires Beneath the Sea, was one of Kirkus’ Best Children’s Books of 2011, as well as a Junior Library Guild selection. Millet works as an editor and writer at a nonprofit in Tucson, Arizona, where she lives with her two young children.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

DAY ONE

THE BOUNTIFUL ARRIVING

Theme of the Day: Listening

There was a time, not long ago, when it was illegal to kill people. I almost remember normal life back then.

Almost. But not really. I tell myself that I remember it, but to be honest it's a mix of made-up and autolearned things.

I was a little kid when the last tipping point came, but part of me ignores that fact sometimes and wants to believe Back Then is my true home. So I invent the world I want to have lived in and curl up in that lost world like a mouse in a burrow. Soft edges and gentle lighting are all around me as I fall asleep, my legs and arms dropping into delicious numbness.

It's safe in the lost world and always the same. Water flows right out of the taps — the kind you can drink, I mean. There are never new bugs, and the airtox alerts are a harmless yellow, never crimson or black. There are woods and a babbling stream on the edge of a peaceful, treelined neighborhood, and I can wander there with no one stopping me.

The vanished world settles inside eternal dusk: here it's always the hour before sunset, my favorite time. On the quiet, dimming street the warmth of living rooms shines from ancient, separate houses — orangey table lamps glow from the windows with the comforting light of old-time incandescent bulbs, while outside the purple dusk deepens, insects called crickets make a chirping song, and dew springs up on velvety green lawns.

No barriers, no nets — you could just walk freely down the street, among the lovely gardens with flowers and bushes. You could step anywhere, practically. I've seen it in old movievids.

Sometimes I get to it by imagining: I set it up carefully, piece by piece, and then sail into it on a dream airship.

Or sometimes I just take the easy way to bliss, like everyone else, and get there with pharma.

Compared to that olden world, the new one's like a vision brought by one of the flatter and speedier pharms. And going back to the vanished place relaxes me, usually, but every now and then it also gives me a strange feeling of homesickness.

Strange because, like I said, that world has never in fact been my home.

I never knew it at all.

* * *

If you're reading this, I like to think, you got out a long time ago, while the going was good. You're in the far future or in the starry reaches of space — maybe both — watching me from a safe distance. Circling the planet, say, watching over me, a living satellite.

That distance should be safe enough.

Out there the dark of airless space lies beyond the silver capsule you're floating in. Through the thick glass of a round window — I get to design this spaceship so I'm going to make it cool — I can see your face, shining with honeyed light. Because I need the picture in my head to have details, I'll throw in the fact that you're young and attractive. (Like me, or at least I like to think so.) You might be a girl or you might be a boy, I change my mind on that between imaginings.

And with you in the capsule there's even a pet. I always wanted a dog — I always longed to have a dog, ever since I saw vids of them from when they were legal — so I'm just going to give you one. Maybe it's Laika, the famous dog from the 20th c. who was shot into space on a rocket called Sputnik 2. I browsed about her a lot in a history tutorial I've watched a bunch of times ("Carbon Excesses Vol. 244: The Era of the Pet"). Sometimes I think of her intelligent eyes, about how terribly confused she must have been. Because at first her life was thousands of hours of love and attention, but then it was a sudden blastoff into the freezing cold of space.

The cold that went on forever. Because they never planned to bring her back.

Her dog heart probably broke before she died.

So I bring Laika the Space Dog back to life. I put her in that warm, safe capsule with you — you and your nice family. She deserves it and so do you.

Because of course you have a family. I would never make you alone out there.

The capsule is a throwback to the world and style that used to be — like one of those curve-cornered, silver homes with wheels the blue-collars lived in, back in the days of the moon missions. I love the look from back then. These days a lot of kids go retro to the 20th c. stylewise, since that's when most of the vids were made. Back then people could make a livelihood from stuff like that — their own creations. They got to make stuff that was unique, stuff people wanted but didn't need at all. Way past what people needed to live.

Not food or energy but words and sounds, scenes and stories. Back then people could take their inner, personal desire and make it into something outside of them, something they loved and were proud of. It was art or music or movievids, it was anything they wanted.

Seeing the swirl of blue-green planet while cut off from all communication, you cosmonauts have a kind of innocence, I guess. You're purified of the contamination of the rest of the human race, all our sadness and the chaos down here. When you read my words they fill your capsule like a song, a song surrounded by the stars and constelÂlations, the streaming cosmic dust.

Maybe you're on your way to colonize a new planet, even, like in the olden stories and vids where alien civilizations turned out to live close by, or we went out with kits and supplies and grew jungles on Mars — lived there in pretty domes, made an oasis on the red planet. In the meantime, hovering here before you say goodbye, you're my beacon. You gaze down from a warm round of welcome in the blackness of space — the universe beyond our haze-gray sky, not cast beneath the pall of the future.

I hope that, from out there in the solar system, you'll just ignore the cheesy names of the different sections in this journal. I know any reader of mine would need to have good taste and so, like me, you won't be into them.

They're in corpspeak, not my own words.

I couldn't bring my face — that's short for "interface," in case you don't know that word — because contracts forbid all personal devices. We're just supposed to "focus on healing." Without my face I have to go old-school and use a pen.

And all I have to write in is the journal they gave us, for writing our emotions in.

They put those titles on the pages. The "Bountiful Arriving," etc. Not me.

I wouldn't be caught dead.

* * *

It's not that olden people lived in the Garden of Eden, back in the golden times. That is, they didn't think they lived in it. They acted like life was hard. Or on the other hand they acted like they had so little to do that they could talk about nothing forever.

I laugh when I watch old screenshows, because half the time you can't tell which were meant to be serious and which were supposed to be funny.

To me the old world looks like paradise. My parents used to tell me stories of where they grew up, and no, it wasn't perfect, bad things could happen if you had bad luck, but for a lot of people their problems were small in the background. Their problems weren't chaos pouring down, just regular-size problems you could work around. Problems that were more or less the size of a person.

As far as I can tell from the tutorials — we have to log a lot of hours on faceschool till we turn eighteen and get our work matches — the human race has always been trouble. We've never been happy with what we had. I've done some browsing in Ancient Myths tutorials and it seems to me we've been like Icarus, that Greek dude with the glued-on wings who flew up toward the sun. The wax on his wings melted — wax acting like glue, I guess — so he plunged to his death.

Or maybe we're more like his father, who made the wings for him in the first place. Who puts their kid in a set of waxed-on wings and sends them flying over the sea? That dad was practically a child molest.

Point is, the two of them had orchards to stroll around in — a blue ocean, green fields, and rolling farmlands. I saw a painting about it: a ship with white sails, a hillside overlooking a harbor, and in the background, so you could hardly notice him, Icarus plunging into the ocean. The wings were gone by then, completely melted off, vanished. All you could see were his legs, sticking out of the water foolishly.

Those farms and fields seem like a vast landscape to me, next to, for instance, the complex where my family lived. But those two guys probably didn't think so. They wanted to conquer the heavens.

That's how it was back then — once, in the past, we thought bigger was better. As far as I can tell, that was our main idea. More, bigger, higher. Of course the tutorials don't put it that way. They're mostly corpspeak about "our human achieveÂments" in "America the Beautiful" over grainy old vids of national parks with pine trees and large brown animals, all furry. Every kid has to take that class. It's called "One Great Nation."

There are vids of herds moving across tall-grass prairies and tree branches with birds flitting about in them; cities of sparkling glass, white buildings with columns. Those sites tell all about how big we were, how high we flew, but not so much what it did to us. (Wax melting. Body plunging. Legs kicking in the air during a drowning activity.) In fact they talk like the system collapse was kind of a tragic accident, like a random asteroid strike.

To see anything but corpspeak veneer you have to look past the pop-up ads and chirpy theme songs; you have to fish around on rogue sites. It's not hard, really, because even though the corps shut them down as fast as they can, new rogue sites keep popping up, and there's lots of juicy stuff on them.

I browse the rogues now and then, but my little brother Sam does it constantly. He knows the hidden places to get to, how to find out corp secrets, even. He's a hackerkid. And while I fish around too from time to time — in the traces of the world's true history, where I can see pieces of beauty and sadness in old pictures like Icarus and spectacular olden music — I'm not into codes and puzzles like Sam is. I'm more into beautiful stuff, the history of what we've made, how we wanted to think of ourselves and of the world.

And when I fish around in that history — the shredded patchwork I can make of it, with holes big enough to see through — I find out things. It's started to seem to me like there were moments and places — sometimes in little villages in the mountains with snow on their peaks or sunlit river valleys; sometimes in those clumps of skyscrapers that held ten million people at a time — when some of our ancestors had peace and were happy.

There were moments.

* * *

We still have laws. It's not chaos in the parts Sam and I know. You get a glimpse of the disorder sometimes, even of a kind of split-second panic, but it's almost like a technical glitch — like a video feed that freezes for just a moment and then moves normally again.

Where my family has lived there's still the rule of law, we have our regular routines. Not far away the cliffs are falling into the sea and the last carbon-sequest forests are turning brown because some beetles from another continent are eating them. Closer to home people are lining up for medicines to cure bugs brought by the new mosquitoes.

All types of mosquitoes and flies have recently moved in from Africa and other continents, following the warmer air and changing conditions. They brought some gifts with them: malaria, dengue fever, yellow fever, West Nile. The flies brought a human strain of parvo, sleeping sickness, the filoviruses they never used to be vectors for. There are vaccines for some of it, but plenty of days, if you're going outside the complex, you have to wear netsuits.

Anyway, in our building there were still burn-free barbeques once a month — the neighbors were up to date on their vaccines and had the codes to prove it. So we would meet new people every now and then, meet them in flesh, not over the bands. We'd meet them on the roof garden or ground-level terraces, or sometimes, when air or bug warnings rolled in on the same day a realmeet was happening, in one of the lobbies, with wallscreen scenes pretending we were all outside. They'd throw up views of the cityscape that tried to replicate the vistas from the roof garden.

That always had a pathetic feel to it and Sam and I always wished they'd just do something else with the screens — we'd rather have had fairylands, animÃ(c). Even still photos or old-fashioned movievids. Hell, we'd rather have had just actual, you know, walls. It's better to either (1) do nothing, or (2) full-on pretend, than try to imitate something that's already halfway lame in the first place.

Frankly the real views aren't that great.

Sam's a sleuth and a sneak. He likes to look through spyholes; he has a thirst for knowledge and the patience to slake that thirst. Sam looks through spyholes on the face and he sees pieces of the hidden rest of the world. Sometimes it's numbers he's downloading, sometimes it's vids, sometimes it's GIS data.

Once I came up behind him when he was watching a live feed of a complex not far from ours where someone had come up contagious. Sam knew another kid there and the kid had some kind of spycam set up; we watched a scene where corporates came teeming into a condo, zipped up the kid's father, and hustled him away.

I see pieces too, but like I said before, I don't have Sam's craving for facts. What I crave, after a long day, what I look for when I'm browsing, is one beautiful thing. I'm like the small gray fish we used to have, the last legal pet in our building. I bury my nose in gravel, hoping to find a nugget to sustain me. It can be a minuscule nugget, as long as it's pleasing. A flash, a spark. Something to fix on and admire.

When I find one of these things, I add it to my collection.

But Sam reminds me more of that little gray fish during the times when it wasn't looking for food. The rest of the time it was just desperate to escape the tank, swimming at the corner edge of the aquarium, its tail and fins constantly fluttering quickly like it was trying to get out. Back and forth, back and forth, corner to corner, from the filter to the air pump, from the fake plant to the fake rock, then up the corner seam and down again.

It's Sam, in our family, who's the rebel. My parents were also rebels once, back in the day — treehugs, at least. They got thrown in jail for saying their opinions about keeping nature around. Not crimes, exactly, but free speech shit — protests about loving animals, chaining themselves to oil derricks to stop drilling, that kind of stuff. My mother lost three fingers that way. On one of her hands she only has a thumb and forefinger, but she can get along fine with them, hold stuff and type, most things she needs to do. The other fingers got in the way of a saw, when she and my dad were treehugging.

She doesn't like to go into detail. My father was with her, and other people too, and she was lucky in the end — they got to a clinic before she lost too much blood.

But they had to leave the fingers behind, Dad says.

That was before I was born. For the past sixteen years, they've been regular parents making a living and taking care of us. My mother's the practical one, my dad's dreamy and has a head full of facts and old memorized quotations. Of the four of us, it's Sam who gets mad at the world these days. Don't get me wrong — it's not that I think things are golden. It's just that, if there's an angry gene, I don't think I inherited it.

* * *

I don't know how much of a history lesson to give; it depends on when your spaceship blasted off, right?

Sam's hacked some corporate sites and he says it went down like so: The service corporations started as spinoffs from even bigger corps. They got their services made legal bit by bit, because those parent corps were megapowerful. Like there would be a major law passed to help farmers grow food, say, and then a government guy who was paid by a service corp would tack on some fine print saying that some action the corps wanted to do would just be legal from then on.

And when it got more out in the open, they started running ads saying how we needed the service because life spans are so long and old people suffer from terrible sadness. Those ads had powerful music written by famous musicians and were what my mom calls tearjerkers. Eventually it seemed most people figured the service must be a medical mercy. I guess it gradually turned normal.

Nowadays service corps, along with the energy and food and water corps, are either instead of government or just run it themselves. We still have democracy, I mean we pick from corporate leaders whose pics and styles and soundbites post on face. It's voting made easy because you choose the brand that fits you best. You can see vids of the different choices playing with their virtual pets, talking to friends and family. And you can link to a list of leaders' general opinions at the end — stuff like what models they prefer, whether they have a godbelief and if so what it is.

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "Pills and Starships"
by .
Copyright © 2014 Lydia Millet.
Excerpted by permission of Akashic Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Day One: The Bountiful Arriving,
Day Two: Orientation & Relaxation,
Day Three: Remembering & Appreciating,
Day Four: Commitment & Communion,
Day Five: Happiness,
Day Six: Separation & Grief,
Day Seven: Accepting & Gratitude,
P.S.,
Pills and Starships E-book Extras,
About Lydia Millet,
Copyright & Credits,
Also Available from Black Sheep,
About Akashic Books,

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