GOLDILOCKS by Laura Lam
Wildfire Books, h/b, £18.99
Reviewed by Michael Dodd
Goldilocks, Laura Lam’s near-future sci-fi thriller named after the specific zone around a star in which human life might flourish, is a powerful and worryingly relevant tale of science, space exploration and human nature. Leaving behind a ravaged Earth, five women set out for Cavendish, a human-habitable planet within reach due to advances in space travel. Led by billionaire Valerie Black, with her surrogate daughter Naomi Lovelace as ship’s botanist, the mission is meticulously planned…but with NASA having replaced Valerie and her team with men, the women enact an audacious theft of the ship Atalanta and set out in defiance of their government. As the mission proceeds, Naomi is forced to confront the possibility that the charismatic philanthropist Valerie she knows so well might be hiding something darker.
The core narrative focuses on the crew of the Atalanta steadily travelling further from a dying, unwelcoming Earth, relying on each other’s skills as they encounter the everyday tensions of living in close confines when a single unsolved problem could spell disaster for them all. Naomi and Valerie are the key characters, the two of them in stark contrast despite their history, but the whole crew feel believable and well-drawn, each of them determined and principled characters with a stake in the mission and a crucial role in the running of the ship – science, medicine, navigation etc. Lam intersperses the main narrative with flashbacks to earlier moments in Naomi’s life, which slow the pace down a little but add detail and emotional heft to her arc, and as the story gets into its stride the extra background helps to contextualise Naomi’s increasing concerns regarding Valerie’s motivations and decisions.
It’s a book which deals with a lot of hot topics, extrapolated out from today’s world – questions of gender equality, privilege and power, the virtues and flaws of capitalism, the damage we’re doing to our planet – while also telling a tense story of bravery and the bonds of loyalty set to the backdrop of largely untested interstellar travel. While not unbiased, it doesn’t feel like this is pushing an agenda so much as shining a light on the reality of the world and the direction we’re going, and it’s hard to argue with many of the points it makes, even if it could maybe have benefited from a little more backstory to what’s happening on Earth. Valerie and her team being pushed out of the project makes sense in context of this story, but the global politics of the wider situation are fascinating, and it would have been good to see more of that.
There’s a lot going on here – the politics and global concerns back on Earth, the scientific problems the crew have to resolve mid-mission (not least coming to terms with the cold beauty and terrible indifference of space, which is beautifully portrayed), the dynamics among the crew and the growing apprehensions regarding Valerie’s role. For all the big issues it tackles, however, this is as much a story of a woman attempting to step out of the shadow of her surrogate mother, finally living a dream that could never really live up to expectations. It’s about women battling for rights and freedoms in the name of a better future for everyone, about how far good intentions can really stretch when held up against impossible decisions, and while it takes a little time to really get going, when it does it becomes a powerfully human story which feels incredibly relevant and relatable in the current climate.