In 'Pills And Starships,' Teens Come Of Age On A Devastated Earth

Pills and Starships is a dystopian tale set in a world ravaged by climate change. NPR's Scott Simon talks to author Lydia Millet about her new young-adult novel set in the future.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Nat and her family are going to Hawaii on a family vacation. Now, she's 17 and has a younger brother named Sam. The family looks forward to massages and fabulous dinners and shows. But their parents aren't coming back. They live in a mid-21st century world in which people can live to 110, but instead often choose to die. The planet they knew is being destroyed by tsunamis, heat waves, hurricanes, famines, foul water and the Great Pacific Trash Vortex. Garbage that's formed a mass bigger than South America in the ocean.

This is the world of "Pills And Starships." It's a novel for young adults by Lydia Millet. She's written several novels for adults, as well the short story collection "Love In Infant Monkeys." She joins us now from the studios of KUAZ in Tucson. Thanks very much for being with us.

LYDIA MILLET: Such a pleasure.

SIMON: So what kind of world is it that Nat and Sam are growing up in?

MILLET: Well, you know, the physical world that I imagined for them is not so different from the one that scientists predict we may actually see. You know, with sea levels that have risen and all kind of species extinctions happening and coastal cities receding and people suffering under the effects of global warming. But the social world that I imagined has some, sort of, extreme aspects. Namely, murder is more or less legal and having babies is illegal.

SIMON: Why?

MILLET: Well, because everything's measured. Life is measured in carbon. Everything's about your carbon footprint. Nat and Sam's family is a relatively privileged one. A very, very small fraction of a percent that lives in one place. But most of the population is migrant and goes around wandering in search of places they can live safely.

SIMON: I was also struck in here by how human contact, social contact, has changed.

MILLET: So much of it is through social media and just electronic. And it's not face to face anymore because everyone's afraid of catching illnesses that are borne by insects and other vectors that have come with the new climate regime. Insects moving around to parts of the world that they didn't previously live in and bringing disease with them. And so everyone's very paranoid about getting sick from being in the same room with other people. There aren't any crowds really anymore allowed, unless everyone's been vetted and had their vaccinations.

SIMON: Maybe you should explain service contracts because that sounds like something you get for a home heating system.

MILLET: (Laughing) Right, it's a little more ominous in this book. Service contracts are the death contracts that these big corporations sell to well-off people who are getting old and who are managing their moods in the face of this terribly transformed world they can't really stand to live in, with the pills that these same corporations are hawking to them. So the same companies that manage moods of the privileged few also manage their exit from the world. Nat and Sam's parents have finally bought a contract on themselves, and in their contract, they go to this resort in Hawaii on the Big Island. And their last week is managed by a corporation.

SIMON: We don't want to give away narrative points, obviously, but there was a part of me that read this book and kept waiting for Nat and/or Sam to shout at their parents. Why are you leaving us in this world? (Laughing) I need you...

MILLET: Right.

SIMON: ...Stick around.

MILLET: Well, there is, you know, there is a little of that that occurs. Sam's a little more aggressive than his sister. He does have more anger toward the parents. But she has empathy, Nat does, you know. And she worries about her parents experience, their last days on Earth. She wants those last days not to be difficult for her parents. So that's part of it.

SIMON: How do you write for the young adult audience or are you, for the most part, not conscious of it?

MILLET: Not conscious. I mean, in this instance, I just wrote about someone I liked. But I unfortunately don't have the knack of writing specifically for an age group. (Laughing) I'm not calculating enough in the way I approach writing. So it's less abstract and philosophical than some of my so-called literary books for, maybe for older readers. But it's still not action packed like Percy Jackson.

SIMON: Do you have any concern that this book is sometimes so detailed that it might not just sweep up young readers but it might frighten them?

MILLET: Well, you know, I think that young readers have very strong stomachs. And if you've read, you know, any of the popular epics of recent times that they read, "The Hunger Games" stuff and, you know, "Divergent," any of that material you need a really strong constitution for. And so this is actually a lot less violent, in fact, than those books. And more ruminative, you know, it's more thoughtful and speculative. It does paint a world, though, that's obviously pretty dark, right?

SIMON: Yeah. Well, that's, in a sense, why I asked the question because I know it's not as violent as some other things. But because of that, in a way, it's darker. It's something that at least American teens might find a lot more plausible.

MILLET: Well, I think there is a certain plausibility to it and also a certain radicalism to it. And of course I hope no one will be scared away. I think that the sort of cheerfulness and the, I don't know, the in a sense lightness of the main character will alleviate some of the background darkness because she really is sort of geared humored and easy going, despite living in this apocalyptic world. Isn't it all about character really in the end, how we all relate to character?

SIMON: Lydia Millet. Her new book "Pills and Starships." Thanks so much for being with us.

MILLET: Thanks so much for having me, Scott.

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