A Claustrophobic Space Thriller: Goldilocks by Laura Lam

Goldilocks is Laura Lam’s latest novel, a stylish science fiction story with all the flair one might expect from the author of False Hearts and Shattered Minds. Its premise—an all-female team of astronauts, led by a visionary billionaire inventor and titan of industry, steal the spacecraft for whose development they’ve been vital, and whose voyage they’ve been cut out of at the last minute, and head for a habitable planet with the intention of making a statement about who deserves to be saved from a dying Earth—has a lot to offer. Unfortunately, this tale of five women shut in unavoidably close proximity with each other for weeks and months on end bid fair to activate all my current not-very-latent claustrophobia, and that was before the novel developed an infectious plague.

Valerie Black is a woman with the confidence, the skills, and the intellect to steal a state-of-the-art spacecraft. Naomi Lovelace, her surrogate daughter, is the novel’s narrator, and it’s through Naomi’s eyes that we see both the wonder of spaceflight and Valerie’s compelling vision. On Cavendish, a habitable planet ten light-years away, Valerie Black means to be able to influence the development of a more utopian society than the one they’re leaving behind on Earth. Her first step is with the five-woman team that’s stealing the spacecraft Atalanta: pilot Hixon, her partner the doctor Hart, engineer Lebedev, and Naomi, biologist who’s specialised in Cavendish since the first probes brought soil and seeds back. And Valerie, their captain.

The novel takes place part in the present, part in the past. In the past we see Naomi, her fascination with space and her determination to be part of its exploration—even as women are being pushed out of active roles in NASA and elsewhere in society, a push spearheaded by the USA but with creeping influence elsewhere—her relationship, never exactly easy, with Valerie and Valerie’s—later somewhat estranged—biological son Evan, her first marriage: it’s not a linear progression through time, but one that illuminates Naomi and her society, as well as Valerie and her drive.

Thieves, traitors, outlaws: the five women on board the Atalanta have only each other to rely on for a journey that will last years. But there are problems: last-minute alterations to the spacecraft—between the women being kicked off the project and their theft—result in dire consequences. And Naomi slowly becomes aware that Valerie is keeping dangerous secrets. Not only has she been carrying on a secret negotiation with the American authorities, but she has developed contingency plans that shock most of the other women on her crew: contingency plans that mean Naomi must come to terms with the difference between the Valerie she thinks she knows and the Valerie who’s willing to condemn everyone on the Earth behind them to death.

Goldilocks excels in its character work, in its slow unfolding of people and decisions and consequences. In Valerie Naomi has a supportive mentor, a mother-figure, a complicated quasi-parent. But Valerie is a woman who inspires loyalty, who expects it, and who, really, demands it in return for either emotional or material support. When Naomi’s priorities begin to diverge from Valerie’s, that habit of loyalty still remains strong—and make Naomi’s choices all the harder.

Naomi’s quasi-filial relationship with Valerie, and the tensions and choices of a small crew on a lengthy mission, is thrown into even higher relief by Naomi’s pregnancy. Naomi’s pregnancy is an accident of timing, and one that gives her no few qualms—but the crew unites behind her in support of her choice, whatever it may be. Pregnant women are seldom protagonists of science fiction stories, but Naomi’s very real concern for her health and the viability of her pregnancy—and the future of her child—gives Goldilocks deeper resonance than most near-future science fiction. What do we owe to our children, biological or otherwise? What do we owe to the future? And what do we owe to ourselves? These are questions that Goldilocks poses, and though it ultimately offers a hopeful vision, it is not one without cost.

I was a little while warming up to Goldilocks, because at this point I’m not sure I’m capable of judging stories with small casts trapped in small spaces entirely on their merits. But it is a fascinating, compelling novel, reminiscent of a psychological thriller in space, and in the end I enjoyed it greatly.

Goldilocks is available from Orbit Books.

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and was nominated for a 2018 Hugo Award in Best Related Work. Find her at her blog, or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

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