(2020) Laura Lam, Wildfire, £18.99, hrdbk, 340pp, ISBN 978-1-472-26764-1
Here’s a near-future space exploration story from an atypical perspective. Goldilocks is the story of the first interstellar voyage by humans to a new planet. The crew plan to travel from Earth to Cavendish via a Gateway near Mars, using the Alcubierre Drive which makes such travel possible.
The difference here is that all of the crew are female, and that they have stolen their spaceship. Frustrated by being marginalized by NASA, who have passed them over for an all-male, all-white team, Valerie, Naomi, Hart, Hixon and Lebedeva hijack the newly built Atalanta spaceship and set off for Mars to then jump to the new planet.
The team seem to cover a variety of backgrounds, and have a range of reasons for being there. Valerie is the team leader, the rich-girl whose money was used to develop the project and has always wanted to go into space until the project was taken away from her, Naomi is her young protégé, taken in by Valerie whilst training to be an astronaut for NASA, Hixon the pilot, married to Hart, the bisexual black doctor and Lebedeva, a Russian exile seemingly ostracised for being a foreign national of an enemy state that would love to also lay claim to Cavendish. Social as well as national politics still exist in this near-future environment.
Such a brief description does make this sound like a female-empowerment story and little more. Whilst there are points where the story seems to be about female wish-fulfilment, much of the book is about the challenges that the team face on their journey – there are initially problems with the home-grown food, for example – and showing how the team manage to work out solutions. For me, much of the enjoyment of this novel was the problem-solving and seeing how the women deal with each challenge as they happen, rather like a gender-flipped version of The Martian. It reminded me of the sort of story magazines like Analog have been telling for years – competent specialists dealing with challenges by finding solutions through science.
And talking of science, I must admit that I liked the technical talk in this one, too, which gave the story a semblance of reality. And whilst I am the first to admit that I’m not a scientist, the points explained in the novel - not too little, not too much - showed some detailed research that sounded right.
In the bigger picture, Goldilocks is told against a backstory of the Earth approaching Armageddon. Climate change has led to wildfires, hurricane-sized storms and rising sea levels, the details of which are dropped throughout the book. The original mission of the Atalanta is to see whether Cavendish is a future haven for those on Earth, which the scientists suggest at most has about thirty more years.
However, to add to this there are some more fuzzy, non-scientific complications. The book is as much about the social dimensions of space travel as much as the scientific. For example, in the spaceship’s hold there are four passengers cryogenically frozen that the women have to decide what to do with. It also doesn’t help that, by coincidence, one of them is the ex-husband of a crew member. There’s an unplanned pregnancy which may jeopardise their journey. And, in addition, the crew of the Atalanta know that Earth is building another spaceship to follow them. What will happen to the pirate crew when they get to Cavendish?
Goldilocks may not be a particularly new science fiction idea – as well as The Martian, I was rather reminded of Allen Steele’s 'Coyote' series, for example - but its attempt to combine a number of tropes and tell an entertaining story whilst also redressing the sf gender imbalance is refreshing. It is a gripping adventure story, but with enough difference to make it enjoyable. And whilst there is a message being made here, Goldilocks makes its points fairly well, without making them as “in-your-face” as some of the more attention-grabbing, award-winning novels of late that have tried to do the same.
The story plays out nicely, combining the backstory of how the crew got to this point and the story of their journey to Cavendish, whilst also building tension as to what the crew will do when (or if!) they arrive at their destination. There’s loyalty and ambition on show and it is clear from the backstory of the challenges the crew, especially Naomi and Valerie, have had to face. The ending ties things up, perhaps a little too conveniently, but by that point you will be onboard with the team’s struggles enough for it not to matter.
See also Mark Bilsborough's take on Goldilocks
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