Goldilocks: in search of the greater good

Book cover: Goldilocks - Laura LamAs the consequences of climate change bite, life on Earth has an expiry date: about thirty years. Our hopes are pinned on an experimental new drive and a distant planet. Will Cavendish save us – or we will kill ourselves just to get there?

According to one newspaper reviewer, Goldilocks is a book for people who get angry on Facebook and once read a Margaret Atwood book. Both are true of me, so unsurprisingly I enjoyed Laura Lam’s latest – a thriller set in an imaginable tomorrow, where the newly-discovered planet of Cavendish looks like humanity’s best hope for survival.

On Earth, the climate is out of control. Sea levels are changing, crops are failing with changing weather patterns, and wearing a mask is essential due to poor air quality. Humanity is dealing with all this about as well as you’d expect from the perspective of 2020 (so: electing conservatives and closing borders). Around the world, small groups of government agencies and private contractors are working hard to find a way off-planet.

But all are not created equal: in this far-too-recognisable future, the opportunity to go to Cavendish is unlikely to be open to everyone. This is confirmed before an exodus has even been proven viable, when the regressive US government insist on an all-male crew for the first mission to Cavendish – and try to cut a key female investor out of the loop.

Valerie Black has never taken no for an answer in her life. Her response is to put together an all-female crew she trusts – not just with her life, but the whole planet’s future – and steal the spaceship her company helped design. Valerie is determined Cavendish must be a utopian haven for a bright new future, not a government-controlled migration of the status quo. But as it becomes clear there are secrets aboard the Atalanta, the tiny crew begin questioning Valerie’s leadership. How far can she push them to achieve her dream of Cavendish?

Narrated by Valerie’s adopted daughter Naomi, the mission’s botanist, Goldilocks is told in alternating timelines that cross-cut events aboard the Atalanta with episodes exploring Naomi and Valerie’s relationship through the years. While much of my rage was reserved for the patriarchal bullshit back on Earth, I soon found Valerie earning a measure. There’s an unavoidable arrogance in hijacking a mission this important, but she’s an ambiguous character at best: visionary, driven, judgemental, ruthless.

The result is a well-executed thriller with strong feminist leanings, that is unafraid to admit that being a feminist doesn’t stop you being an asshat.Β 

While I love its core ingredients, I wasn’t as absorbed by Goldilocks as I expected. There are two fascinating stories here: a tense space mission teetering on the edge of disaster, and the personal history of two women battling the patriarchy whilst navigating the imbalances in their own relationship. I just think I would have had a better grasp of the characters – and been more invested in them –Β  if their story had been told chronologically. I felt (and this is very subjective indeed) that the split narrative resulted in flimsier characters and undercut the mounting tension aboard the Atalanta.

For all its space thriller credentials, I read Goldilocks as being primarily interested in the relationships between children and parents. This plays out on a personal level through Naomi, struggling to work out who she is and what she wants for herself, and whose rare rebellions have often ended in disaster. But it also plays out at a societal level. The future of humanity is in the hands of the rich and the powerful, driven by our apparent reluctance to challenge the status quo – and by how easily those in power control the narrative to cling onto it. Goldilocks asks what it takes to step out of the shadow of those who (seem to) control your destiny – as individuals and as a species.

On this basis, I found it satisfying overall, in spite of the protracted final act, which felt anti-climactic after the ethical and personal challenges posed by the mission. At least the coda helps to clarify the through-line, as well as injecting an unexpected ray of hope (although pour out a glass for the next generation: there will always be someone casting a shadow).

I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

CW: abortion, pandemic, genocide