The Earth is in environmental collapse. Women’s rights are deteriorating. Space exploration and settlement are calling.
Though this might sound like our current world, these are actually the factors in Laura Lam’s newest novel, Goldilocks, which follows a set of all-female astronauts after they steal a spaceship and set out to colonize a planet light-years away. The planet, Cavendish, is in the far-reaching Goldilocks Zone where the conditions are just right for human habitation.
Naomi Lovelace takes front and center in this narrative, a determined botanist who has waited her whole life for this opportunity. The rest of the crew consists of her surrogate mother and brains-behind-the-operation Valerie Black; Oksana Lebedeva, the lead engineer; Jerrie Hixon, pilot and mathematician; and her wife, Irene Hart, the physician. The women’s plan to steal the spaceship meant for an all-male crew launches the novel into a months-long space travel narrative where they must “science” their way out of multiple obstacles on their way to a new world. Perhaps most surprising of all is how many of Earth’s old issues have tagged along with them on their way to starting over.
I was rooting for them the whole way, even as secrets and alternate motives corroded the mission. I couldn’t help but feel like this was the way the real-life Mercury 13 story should have really gone, and it was satisfying to watch these women take what they knew they deserved.
I was grateful to speak with the author of Goldilocks, Laura Lam, whose previous novels have explored similar issues and imaginative plots. She discusses space podcasts, who wields power, and what a fresh start for humanity might look like.
With all the Sci-Fi and Space fiction out there right now, what were you trying to do differently with Goldilocks?
I like to examine both our dreams and our nightmares about the future—in Goldilocks, I’m specifically interested in climate change, public health, the widening wealth gap, and bigotry rearing its head in both bold and insidious ways.
I absolutely love astronaut films like Interstellar, The Martian, Armageddon, and the like, but of those, only Gravity centers on a female astronaut. Sandra Bullock is so good in that film, but she’s also all alone for most of it. Not sure it passes the Bechdel test. In the rest, women are often background characters or love interests, not astronauts. Liv Tyler has been left on Earth as an astronaut’s wife in two different films! Send Liv Tyler to space!
Historically, women have been pushed out or ignored in human spaceflight — we only had our first all-female spacewalk in October last year, right after I finished the book. The first proposed one in March was canceled, and I remember furiously writing the spacewalk chapter that day. The Mercury 13 should have gone into space with the Mercury 7, but most people don’t even know about that program of women taking the same astronaut tests back in the 60s. So, all of that fed into wanting to write everything I loved about astronaut films, but through my own lens.
I suppose I was also trying to build on what I began with my previous near future books, False Hearts and Shattered Minds. I love reading science fiction that’s set one second into the future or is a far-future space opera that’s almost fantasy (I wrote one of those, too – Seven Devils).
There’s a ton of science and technical jargon in this novel that adds a truly authentic flavor. How much research did you have to do versus how much did you already know about the subject matter of space travel?
Before I wrote this book, I knew very little about space travel. Basically, I only knew what I’d gained through osmosis of reading and watching a lot of science fiction. My acknowledgments for Goldilocks are 5 pages long. One of my good friends, Dr. Sinead Collins, is basically Naomi but not an astronaut. She runs a lab at the University of Edinburgh that looks at algae and climate change, so she did a science read for me. A lot of the algae stuff is thanks to her and Dr. Máté Ravasz, who told me about cyanophages. I also spoke to two astrophysicists, a professor of space law, several experts in infectious diseases, a doctor who looks after NASA astronaut health, and the former head of life sciences for the Johnson Space Center. I did a lot of googling, read peer-reviewed scientific journal articles and nonfiction books where a lot of it went over my head, and listened to a lot of astronaut memoirs on audiobook along with most episodes of NASA’s Houston We Have a Podcast. I completely immersed myself in anything space-related for a solid six months. It was challenging but also really fun and fascinating.
I’m sure, despite trying my best, I will have stuffed some of the science stuff up. There are already a few things I would change now due to the events of the past couple of months. But considering I barely made it through high school chemistry and biology, I think I did an all right job. I figured if I could understand it, so would other laypeople reading it.
In about the middle of the novel, Naomi and the crew have to make a hard decision (no spoilers!). She says, “It feels awful, deciding their fate for them.” And yet all I could think about was the juxtaposition of how women’s fates were being decided all the time on Earth, and how none of the decision makers seemed to feel the same anguish. Did you play with this contrast between who got to make the calls a lot when you were writing?
I only learned last year that a lot of drug trials and science studies are only done on men/AMAB people because it’s difficult to sync up hormonal cycles and due to the pressure to publish, they often need faster timelines for studies. There are so many subtle ways women/AFAB people are having decisions made for us rather than by us. Due to the lockdown, IVF treatments are suspended in many places and people in power (usually men) have used it as an excuse to halt abortions or other reproductive health services. Before lockdown, we were already seeing state-specific heartbeat bans (again, mostly by men). None of the worldbuilding I did in Goldilocks felt like a massive stretch to me.
I think in all of my work, I’m really interested in power — who wants it, who wields it, their motivations for making the decisions they make. Do some of the people currently making decisions they know will result in deaths feel any anguish? If they do, they still make their choices at the end of the day.
Climate change is a huge driving force in this novel. Can you talk a little about how the current world around you inspired the futuristic crumbling world you wrote about?
While I was writing the book last year, Greta Thunberg and the many other teen activists were in the forefront of the news. Though I don’t date Goldilocks in the text, mentally I’ve set it in 2033, which is when we’re currently hoping to send a mission to Mars (without a lot of the tech advancements I put forward). Greta will be about Naomi’s age at that point. I kept thinking about what world these teens are going to inherit if we don’t do anything to stop what is coming.
I feel so frustrated and powerless by the ramifications of climate change, yet I also am complicit, like many of us are. I eat plant-based a lot of the time but I’m not vegan and don’t only eat local produce. I still take flights. I don’t always recycle or compost. I have bought fast fashion in the last year. We’re all, little by little, destroying the world every day. We can stop it, but I don’t know if we will be able to cooperate and actually make the radical change required until it’s too late. We’ve seen over the last few months that the climate can change when humans slow down. I don’t know whether or not that will kickstart action in the years to come. I hope so.
Themes of motherhood show up in many angles in the novel, often in surprising ways. When an all-woman team sets out to colonize a planet light-years away, that’s not necessarily an outcome one would imagine in this book. What do you think encouraged you to make this theme one of the central threads of the story?
I think it’s because every woman/AFAB person grows up with society’s ideas of motherhood around them all the time, and I don’t think that would escape us, even in space. And often, at least to me, it feels like there’s no ‘winning’ when people ask about my plans for kids. I never know what answer they want. It’s a multiple-choice question:
- I state I want kids and I therefore conform to society’s expectation of a woman’s function. But then if I focus on my career I am neglecting the baby, but if I stay at home I’m giving up on my career and financially reliant on my partner and I’ll be judged for that too.
- I tell them I don’t want kids. Cue the ‘you’ll change your mind’ or the affronted looks, as if my answer means I am judging their choices about procreation.
- I would have a pressure to reveal personal medical information, such as struggles with infertility, miscarriages, or out myself as trans/intersex, etc.
- I say I want kids but recognize we’re already overpopulated and any kid I have would have to grow up with climate change only getting worse, or more pandemics most likely breaking out, and so forth, so since I’m not desperate for them I won’t have any. The conversation goes back to B.
At least to me, every answer feels like a trap.
How was it writing a book where the reality of this future — climate crisis, space exploration, erosion of women’s rights — seems less like fiction and more like an inevitable endpoint?
When I started the book, I mentioned an abortion ban that took place in year 2028 or something like that, but then the heartbeat bills came out so I had to bring the date forward. I finished the last read-through of the book in around October, I think. Since then, I have been dismayed to see how much less fictional it’s become in only 6-7 months. Everyone in Goldilocks wears face masks outdoors because of climate change. I did not expect people to be wearing face masks for a pandemic. It hasn’t been all bad, though. Seeing the Artemis mission be announced and continued plans for Mars has been quite exciting. Though can we please not mine the moon?
Without giving away any of the twists, I found Valerie’s outlook on how to create a better, more peaceful life on the new planet Cavendish very interesting: allowing a new generation to grow and learn away from the old ways of Earth. Assuming we could start over somewhere other than Earth, do you feel similarly?
I think we’ve all thought that a fresh start or a fresh break from all our entrenched ways seems easier than trying to unpick and correct all our problems. I think it’s partially why we’re looking to and dreaming of Mars instead of fixing what’s broken here on Earth. I’m an optimist and a pessimist in equal measure. I think humans are capable of great change and infinite kindness, but we’re also very good at forgetting our mistakes and making them again and again.
By Laura Lam
Published March May 05, 2020