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Clang clang clang went the trolley


By Laura Lam 

19 May, 2020

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Laura Lam’s 2020 Goldilocks is a standalone science fiction novel.

Good news, bad news: Cavendish (an Earth-like, life-bearing world) is just ten and a half light years away and, thanks to the Alcubierre Drive, it is within humanity’s reach. Due to generations of poor choices, humanity needs Cavendish if it is to survive. The Earth is racing towards its final greenhouse doom.

Dr. Valerie Black, CEO of Hawthorne, believes that the Earth is doomed and that humanity must be saved. She has convinced the US government to construct the ship and the infrastructure needed for a voyage to Cavendish. At the last moment, however, a misogynistic administration has removed her from the project and replaced her handpicked crew with astronauts who were less trained but more acceptably male.

No worries! Black has vast cunning and even greater resources. The men stole the starship Atalanta from her. Black simply steals it back.

Starships may be too expensive for even an oligarch to buy, but Earth-to-orbit vehicles are a different matter. Valerie Black and her four confederates — biologist Naomi Lovelace, pilot Jerrie Hixon, engineer Oksana Lebedeva, doctor Irene Hart — launch into orbit and commandeer the starship. 

While President Cochran’s administration fumes impotently, the good ship Atalantasets course for Mars orbit, where the warp ring1 needed to send the ship on its way waits. Mid-century space propulsion may be highly advanced, but Mars orbit is still 126 days away. That’s lots of time for things to go wrong.

Valerie informs her crew that thanks to Cochran’s cost cutting, the Atalanta has some significant design flaws. The most pressing of these concern the five cold-sleep berths, which are drawing an increasing amount of power from the rest of the ship. If the berths are not shut down, the ship will cease to sustain life long before it completes the four-month FTL flight to planet Cavendish. The berths are full of people. There are now ten people (five awake, five in cold sleep) on the ship and its life-support systems can’t handle the load.

The cold-sleep berths are malfunctioning, which means that the sleepers are probably dead. Valerie suggests spacing them. This really really bothers crewperson Naomi. But it is done.

It just so happens that while the fearless five are hijacking the Atalanta, a deadly pandemic is sweeping across the world. The pandemic keeps the Cochrane administration too busy to send a follow-up mission in pursuit of the hijackers. Is this luck … or is it perfect timing on Valerie’s part? Could the pandemic be less than accidental? 

Then Naomi discovers a stash of embryos in hidden storage. Valerie, it seems, has been keeping secrets. Valerie has plans.

If she’s willing to kill millions on Earth to protect her mission, how will she react should her underlings threaten her grand plan? 


There is a world outside the US in this novel; other nations would be able to duplicate the Atalanta. They’ve just not opted to do so at this time, perhaps because while it’s life-bearing, Cavendish so far only supports microfauna. This is not entirely surprising because as the text notes, Epsilon Eridani, the star Cavendish orbits, is a billion years old. Or less. Settling Cavendish is a task likely to involve quite a lot of back-breaking work, and if that were the sort of thing humans did, they’d be doing it to keep Earth livable2.

I spent a considerable portion of this book getting increasingly annoyed by the appearance of tropes that annoy the hell out of me: 

  • greenhouse doom worse than the End Permian; 
  • corrupt, irredeemable humans (who for some reason should be spread to other worlds); 
  • the notion that it makes more sense to colonize a hostile alien world than to work with the Doomed Earth (which no matter how damaged is still likely to be friendlier than a planet that doesn’t even have soil as we understand it);
  • that shipping people there could be doable on any scale that mattered; 
  • that old favourite, that sometimes for the greater good you just have to toss people out airlocks. 

As it turns out, Lam isn’t on board with any of those tropes. They’re introduced to be critiqued as the plot develops. It turns out, for example, that megalomaniac oligarchs with a Pure and Perfect Vision of How Things Have to Be aren’t necessarily the best people to follow, also that the ends justify the means” may not work as advertised. Being keen on the airlock version of the trolley problem shows, not resolve, but profound character flaws. It’s almost as though being resigned to (or eager for) the deaths in numbers ranging from handfuls to hundreds of millions for the greater good is bad.

In short, Lam managed to surprise me. 

Summary: plot was fine. The prose was competent. The characters were a bit thin but functional. I enjoyed the book enough that I’m looking forward reading Lam’s upcoming space opera. 

Goldilocks is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Book Depository), and here (Chapters-Indigo).

  1. The FTL system requires calibrated warp rings at both ends. The far ring is emplaced by a very small, very fast sublight probe. This does mean that human expansion is limited by the speed of the sublight probes. 
  2. The other nations of the world may also have done a simple calculation: if there’s one Earth-like habitable world within ten light years, geometry and the principle of mediocrity suggest that there could be thousand such worlds within one hundred light years. What are the odds that the nicest such world is also the closest one? Let the Americans spend lives and money claiming an armpit world for their own; we will apply the lessons learned to better worlds.