In an act of daring subterfuge, five women commandeer the first spacecraft destined to settle a distant planet and take over the mission for themselves, leaving the male astronauts in cryosleep. The women had trained years for the task, only to witness their spots given to five less qualified men by a governmental agency increasingly hostile to the advancement of women: “So much had been stolen from them. From all women. Naomi and her conspirators were stealing something back.”

The title “Goldilocks” (Orbit, 352 pp., ★★½ out of four) refers not to the fairy tale of the girl with the bears, but to a classification of exoplanets likely to be amenable to life. That is the mission of the Atalanta spacecraft: to settle a new world now that Earth has become nearly uninhabitable. Global warming, rampant pollution and (oh, yes!) viral pandemics have ravaged our world. NASA’s thought is that, once the new planet has been settled, “the rest of humanity can arrive into a world with existing infrastructure. Fewer country allegiances. Open borders.”

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Though she’s not the astrobotanist NASA had in mind, Naomi is in charge of the ship’s food. The author has clearly done plentiful research on how a lengthy voyage can provide for itself, including cultivation of algae into something appetizingly called “nutriblocks.” Maybe the research was a little too plentiful: Long passages investigating the practicalities of space travel will fascinate some readers and bore others. Luckily for all of us, though, there’s plenty of interpersonal conflict on board, too. The ship’s captain also happened to have raised Naomi after her parents died —and their relationship comes under increased strain after it becomes clear that someone on board has a second rebellion in mind.

Given the tautness of the book’s setup — with its enclosed space, world-shaking implications and startling reveals — “Goldilocks” is ultimately disappointing. After bogging the first half down in long Wikipedia-esque passages about Biosphere 2 and astrophysics, Lam kicks the storytelling into overdrive in the second half, making it feel rushed and occasionally vaudevillian. It was hard to get to know the characters during the static exposition of the first half, and once the story started moving they — and especially the tale’s villain — were made almost cartoonish to serve the frantic plot.

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All the same, through the novel’s fascinating premise, Lam gives us plenty of food for thought about gender dynamics in our own world. The image of five women taking back what’s rightfully theirs from five less-qualified men, and literally freezing them in time to do so, is a symbol that will stick with me for some time. The viral pandemic that plays out off-page also feels eerily prescient. These elements are just enough for “Goldilocks” to overcome the occasional wobbles in its story structure.


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