REVIEW: Goldilocks – Laura Lam

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Author: Laura Lam (website/ twitter)

UK Publisher: Wildfire Books

Genre: Science fiction, thriller

Ravaged by environmental disaster, greed and oppression, our planet is in crisis. The future of humanity hangs in the balance – and one woman can tip it over.

Despite increasing restrictions on the freedoms of women on Earth, Valerie Black is spearheading the first all-female mission to a planet in the Goldilocks Zone, where conditions are just right for human habitation.

It’s humanity’s last hope for survival, and Naomi, Valerie’s surrogate daughter and the ship’s botanist, has been waiting her whole life for an opportunity like this – to step out of Valerie’s shadow and really make a difference.

But when things start going wrong on the ship, Naomi starts to suspect that someone on board is concealing a terrible secret – and realises time for life on Earth may be running out faster than they feared…

You know when you look at a book and you know it’s going to be one of those stories which absorbs you, and it’s going to really drag you in and make you feel things which aren’t going to be entirely comfortable? So you have to rev yourself up to reading it because you want to make sure you’re in the right emotional place? The run up I had to take to this book largely involved me carrying it around the house for three days and looking wistfully at the beautiful cover before I worked up the nerve to start it. There will be some spoilers in this review, but I will try to keep them to a minimum.

I’ve read a fair amount of feminist fiction in the last couple of years, and they always make me feel a lot of things, but what I wasn’t prepared for was how close to life this book would land. I suspect Laura wasn’t either, having written it well before the pandemic, but suddenly finding a lot of her far-flung ideas playing out in real life. It speaks a lot to her observation of humanity that many of the things she had predicted as part of a futuristic society balancing on the edge of ecological annihilation are being seen in reality.

The novel tracks citizens of the US, and although the climate crisis is impacting the whole world, there is the additional level of dystopia brought by the political and social situation in the US. We’re given the impression that this is at least partially the same in the UK, and potentially in the rest of Western Europe, although it’s unclear whether this is true for all the world’s nations. Structural changes to social support and population control measures have essentially forced women from the workplace, abortion is banned for first pregnancies, but then enforced IUDs prevent any further pregnancies. More than one child prompts a hefty financial penalty – even in the case of multiple births, so twins cost more. When a first child is born, the government give mothers a large bonus to take five years out of work to care for the baby. This has the double effect of removing women from the workplace and making it harder for them to rejoin at a later date. Childcare costs are prohibitive without the bonus, and five years is long enough for the work environment to have changed completely. This is against the backdrop of massive wealth inequality, climate refugees, and a shrinking pool of resources while people deny there’s a problem as the Earth burns.

A viable alternative planet has been found in another solar system, but despite Valerie Black building the ship and providing the technology, she and her crew are forced off the project in favour of men, women erased from history despite doing the work. Instead, she gathers her crew and decides to steal the ship and hijack the mission before the men can get on board. Naomi, Valerie’s adoptive daughter, has spent her life wanting to live up to Valerie’s expectations, and idolising Valerie as strong, uncompromising, but fair and principled. Unfortunately, as the book progresses Naomi begins to suspect that Valerie has been willing to compromise more than she realises.

This is clearly a book which was written in response to the current climate situation, but the way we’ve seen the same behaviours played out over a much faster period during the current crisis makes the details in this book hit so much harder. The denial, the selfish behaviours, the fact that the situation is very different for rich people than it is for poor people. Add to this that in Goldilocks, people have to wear masks outside because the air is unsafe to breathe, and the start of a pandemic taking down an already weakened and overcrowded society, there’s something eerily prescient to be found in these pages. Particularly in light of some US states cancelling abortions because they’re deemed non-essential, it’s not hard to see how a crisis can spiral into an attack on women’s rights and autonomy.

You could read all this and worry that the book will be inescapably bleak, but it’s not. There’s a strong thriller to pull you through the world building, and the tension is ramped up slowly like a spring being wound. It starts feeling very exciting and hopeful, and steadily becomes something you can’t pull yourself away from. And then you’ve been in the garden for three hours reading and forgot to reapply sunscreen and now you look like a lobster.

What makes this so readable is that all this is bound together with a thread of hope, and appreciation for beauty and the deep belief that humanity can be better. Naomi is pragmatic, but almost despite herself there’s a softness and wonder in her. She marvels at the beauty of space, she is excited by the plants and life she is able to create that will survive on their new world. She loves and plans and prays, and while she isn’t naive, and finds herself questioning her beliefs and her faith in Valerie as the book progresses, she finds her own strength in doing that. Questioning and finding answers doesn’t leave her weaker or unmoored, instead she realigns her moral compass free from outside influence and finds a hopeful core inside her that people can and will do better.

I’d worried a little when starting this book that it might be a little like Vox or Q which were intensely emotional and very difficult reads. Those were books I had to finish because I wanted it to be over and I needed closure. But Goldilocks is different. While there are similar thematic elements, and while it is alarmingly close in many ways to the current situation (in ways which Laura could definitely not have predicted), there’s something in the narrative that feels light. There’s wonder and beauty and hope in there, which means that you keep reading because you, like Naomi, hope that things are going to get better. That doesn’t mean better is guaranteed, the story delivers challenge after challenge, and gives no promises that anyone will be protected. It’s adrenaline-inducing, but by the end I found myself following Naomi’s example, and having faith.

Briefly:

  • A science fiction thriller with a feminist message, what was written as a climate and social disaster book has become a fantastically well-observed sketch of human behaviour during a crisis, providing the backdrop and drive for this psychological thriller.
  • In some ways I think the fact that the five central characters have been removed from society for the bulk of the book by making their way into space helps ease the rage I might have had about the structural unfairness of the world. In the same way that my anger eased in Vox when the narrator gained some power, this book shows the women taking control at the beginning. While the knowledge of the powerlessness is there, there’s the relief of knowing that the narrator is that bit further away from it.
  • This may sound strange, but I loved reading the acknowledgements at the end. They’re broken down by the area of science Laura received advice on, and the researchers and scientists who helped her. I felt like they were a great representation of the book – it’s a well-researched, fantastically-observed book at every step of the way.

Rating: 5/5 – while this book wasn’t intended to be the novel of the pandemic, its themes reflect a lot of what is happening right now. But in between my marvelling that Laura might actually be some kind of psychic, I felt like it was a catharsis of all the stress I’m currently feeling. It’s a fantastic book.

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