What will happen if the nations of the world fail to combat climate change?

It’s a compelling question, and a good one for teens to sink their teeth into since they’ll be the ones dealing with the results. “Pills and Starships,” the first young-adult novel by Lydia Millet, offers one thrillingly scary scenario, told in the journal entries of a teenage girl.

It’s many decades from now, and Earth is suffering. Rising water levels have displaced millions. Centuries of discarded junk have coalesced into a “Great Pacific Trash Vortex” bigger than South America. “Wallscreens” bring “updates on sea rise, tsunamis, hurricanes, heat waves and droughts, crop deaths, methane and carbon eruptions, famine fatality totals, bug vectors and paths, certified plant and animal extinctions.” It’s not safe to meet strangers or drink tap water or leave the confines of your housing complex — if you are lucky enough to live in such a place.

Still, our narrator, Nat, is a cheerful enough guide to this ravaged future. She and her younger brother, Sam, have sailed to Hawaii with their elderly parents. Mid-21st-century scientific advances allow couples to delay childbirth by decades, and people regularly live to 110 — if they want to. Ready to die, Nat’s parents are instead hiring a service corporation to kill them. It’s all legal, and in fact encouraged, particularly for people who can still remember what the world was like before things got bad. Even with the ubiquitous “pharma” drugs to take the edge off, “the old people get sad because the world’s falling apart,” Nat explains with characteristic bluntness. She and her brother are part of what’s known as the “last generation”: Baby-making was officially banned soon after Sam’s birth.

The Hawaii vacation takes place at what is essentially a luxury spa for those who have chosen to die. Armed with a “Coping Kit” and the advice of a creepy New Age counselor called the “Receiving Vessel,” Nat and her brother are meant to enjoy their parents’ last week of life with group therapy, massages, dinner and a show. That things won’t go according to plan is clear when Sam, a skeptical “hackerkid,” starts figuring out what’s really behind the service corporations. He and Nat will take major risks to buck the system, hoping that there is a better alternative to the only way of life they’ve known.

“Pills and Starships” by Lydia Millet. (Handout/Black Sheep)

Nat has a credible and charming voice, and the book provides enough twists and turns to suit a teenage reader. And enough hope: The world Millet describes is terribly damaged but not fully lost. Her shorthand on the environmental science behind the catastrophe is spot-on for young adults, if a bit heavy-handed for older readers.

But there is something missing: a sense of immediacy. In Millet’s deployment of the journal format, much of the action is described at a remove. The urgency of the plot and, indeed, the overarching issues at hand, are diminished. That said, there is much here to enjoy — for adult fans of dystopian fiction, too — and plenty to worry about.

Sklaroff is a D.C.-based writer.


By Lydia Millet

Black Sheep. 256 pp. $22.95