Book review: Goldilocks by Laura Lam

(cover image courtesy Hachette Australia)

Humanity has a perverse gift for shooting itself comprehensively in the foot even as it tries to take heady and hopeful steps into a necessary future.

This enduring Achilles Heel is on full and invigoratingly involving display in Laura Lam’s novel Goldilocks, which is less about bears, young girls and porridge and more about the dreams and hope, politics and skullduggery surrounding the race to get to a new habitable planet that could be a new home for the climate change-imperilled people of Earth.

The title is drawn from the concept of a “Goldilocks Zone”, that place in galaxies including our own where life is possible on planets that fell in a habitable range from the resident sun thanks to the right kind of atmospheric pressure and the fact that it is neither too hot nor too cold for liquid water to exist.

It’s the holy grail for those searching for livable planets beyond our own, and in Lam’s bracingly beguiling story, it has gone from scientific curiosity to non-negotiable necessity as climate change heats up the earth, leading to food shortages, rivers of refugees, disease rampant and an increasing sense that life is no longer possible on our beleaguered blue planet.

Humanity is in serious trouble and there’s not sense of urgency to fix things besides the idea that we could just give up and head off to pastures new; in this case, the planet Cavendish, 10.5 light years away, all blue water, island continents and sparkling possibility.

“Floating out there [in orbit] was a little like standing on the shore, looking out to sea, beautiful but cruel. The currents would pull you under and would not care. In that moment, Naomi fully understood the meaning of the word ‘awestruck’. The word ‘sublime'”. (P. 32)

But herein lies the other problem with our contrarily flawed species.

We dream big and have the capacity to do great things in consequence; however, we remain stubbornly our broken, self-sabotaging selves and so while visionary capitalists like Valerie Black dream with iron-will intensity of a new world besmirched not by the self-destructive sins of our past, the sad truth is that any drive to build a new and just society may well founder on the shoals of our proclivity for turning thrilling vision into grinding reality.

Still, whatever the prospects for the fulfilment of this hope for a brave new, idealistic world, Valerie, her surrogate botanist daughter Naomi and three other highly-capable women are determined to give it their best shot.

It’s a tough ask though in a world rapidly swinging to misogyny and homophobia and a host of other societal horrors in the wake of the kind of societal pressure which is good for dictators and extreme conservatives and not so good for those of a more progressive bent but Valerie and her team are determined to push through and push through hard, no matter the obstacles.

Although, as Goldilocks serves up a thrilling but thoughtful narrative that feels, as Chuck Wendig rightly observes on the book’s back cover as a mix of “Interstellar‘s brain with The Handmaid Tale‘s heart”, it becomes increasingly apparent that the greatest threat to a perfect new world on Cavendish may well be on of their own number.

Laura Lam (image courtesy Goodreads / image (c) Lawrie Photography)

Lam does an exemplary job in Goldilocks of balancing full speed ahead tension and action with a mindfulness and thoughtfulness that doesn’t always come with the territory of deftly executed space thriller.

The novel, which focuses primarily on Naomi and her life and how that plays into the events of the time and the lives of the people with whom she shares the Atalanta spaceship with as it journeys to Cavendish, is a joy to read because as you race to turn the pages to see what happens next, you are also treated to a well-thought out and articulate treatise on the parlous state of humanity, its home planet and its own capacity for simultaneously saving and dooming itself.

Science fiction has always had a profoundly important role to play in addressing the pressing issues of the time in which it is written, and Goldilocks very much continues this tradition, examining not only how climate change will affect us in a sadly not-too-distant future but how any hope of a second chance may fall victim to human nature and our capacity for infighting and delusion when what is needed are clear heads and selfless hearts.

Those last two qualities are in play in Goldilocks but not quite where and with the people you expect.

In a slowly unfurling mystery which comes uncomfortably close to imperilling the lofty goals of the mission at the heart of the book, Lam brilliantly teases out, through expositional flashbacks and vitally-written present time passages, what is at stake and who might be playing a hand in either elevating the fulfilment of Valerie’s grand, overarching and idealistic vision or sending it crashing to the metaphorical ground.

“Naomi searched for Evan in the crowd. She found him, his elbows on his knees, staring up at the screen. It had been the first time he’d really been confronted with what Valerie and Naomi were trying to do. And it’d been the first time he must have realised just how much they had up against them.” (P. 118)

Very much like other novels like Do You Dream of Terra-Two? Temi Oh by and yet with a distinctively immerse style all her own, which address the fraught tension between the very best and the very worst of us and that awkwardly hostile and often unfulfilling place we inhabit in the middle, Lam addresses the great problem that exists at the heart of human endeavour, particularly when it is aimed at ensuring our ongoing survival as a species.

While we may have the capacity for vaultingly inspiring dreams and hope that springs so eternal killing it feels all but impossible, we are also capable of the greatest and most horrific cruel of actions, even when we possess the very best of intentions, and it’s this contradiction that sits at the heart of Goldilocks and its brilliantly-told story.

The thing is that for all its honesty about the human condition and the very pressing climate peril in which we find ourselves, Goldilocks is surprisingly hopeful and uplifting, a gripping tale of the attempt by five women to chart an entirely new course for all people and hopefully forge an entirely new civilisation in the process.

Nothing goes to plan, of course – that’s the great charm of space adventures such as this that anything and everything can do narrative-enhancing wrong – but that’s not always a bad thing in the course of an astonishingly well-realised novel which thinks big, feels just as big and which delivers a story so enormously engrossing, vitally important and thoughtfully emotive that you will be thinking of it long after the final page is reached.

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