Laura Lam: The Gut Punch of Accidentally Predicting the Future

Laura Lam is a damn fine writer whose work has only grown better over time — and her newest, Goldilocks, is evidence of that. It’s sharply relevant and has that feeling of a screw turning and digging in as you read it, and I cannot recommend it enough — and here she talks about some of the same stuff I’ve grappled with, re: Wanderers, meaning, oops, I predicted the future. Sci-fi writers aren’t out here trying to predict the future, really; we’re usually trying to talk about the present and the past. But sometimes, we hit the mark just the same. Here’s Laura!

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I thought Terrible Minds would be the place to talk about the strange, horrible feeling of accidentally predicting the future, since Chuck did it too with Wanderers.

It happens to pretty much any science fiction writer who writes in the near future. Worldbuilding is basically extrapolating cause and effect in different ways. You see a news article somewhere like Futurism and you give a little chuckle—it’s something happening that you predicted in a book, and it’s a strange sense of déjà vu. I used to even share some of the articles with the hashtag #FalseHeartsIRL when I released some cyberpunks a few years ago. I can’t do that with Goldilocks, really, because the stuff I predicted isn’t some interesting bit of tech or a cool way to combat climate change through architecture or urban planning.

Because this time it’s people wearing masks outside. It’s abortion bans. It’s months of isolation. It’s a pandemic.

In real life, it’ll rarely play out exactly as you plan in a book. Some things twist or distort or are more unrealistic than you’d be allowed to put into fiction (e.g. murder wasps or anything that the orange man in the white house utters). In Goldilocks, I have people wearing masks due to climate change being a health risk, which was inspired by how disconcerted I felt seeing a photo of my mother wearing a mask due to the wildfires in California while I live in Scotland.

The rising tide of misogyny and other forms of bigotry has been on my mind the last few years, so I created a dystopian future, my take on a Handmaid’s Tale scenario—how would that shake down if climate change meant thirty years of habitability at most? I took a slow, insidious approach, though I deliberately didn’t go into a detailed step-by-step breakdown from how exactly we go from here to there. This was because it would date itself immediately (it already has, I suppose, as there’s no mention of coronavirus in the book), and I also thought it’d be more interesting for readers to fill in those blanks and each find a subtly different route.

I figured you’d still try to use reproductive health as a way to control power over the narrative, and the Heartbeat Bills that cropped up while I was drafting last year and the way states are using COVID-19 as a way to ban abortions is fairly telling. I also thought about how people offer something that seems good for those who just gave birth but has a sting in the tail—a birth bonus to make the first few years of raising a child easier, but it’s also a way to sneakily encourage people with uteruses to stay home and look after the kid for a few years. If you want any additional kids? You have to pay a very hefty child-tax to get that state-mandated IUD removed, so only the rich are able to have more than one.

Five women steal a spaceship to journey to Cavendish, a planet 10 light years away and humanity’s hope for survival and for a better future. A planet they hopefully won’t spoil like the old one. It’ll take the Atalanta 5 a few months to journey to Mars to use the test warp ring to jump to Epsilon Eridani (the real star for my fake planet), and then a few more months’ travel on the other side. It’s a long time to be with the same people. I did not expect those elements of how the women cope with isolation to be a how-to for 2020. I read a lot of astronaut memoirs, and that has probably helped me cope with lockdown a bit better than I might have (my top rec is Chris Hadfield’s An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth).

Though it’s a mild spoiler, in light of current events I have been warning people that there is a pandemic in the book. It’s not a huge focus of the plot and it never gets graphic, but I forwarded an article about coronavirus to my editor on January 22nd with basically a slightly more professional version of ‘shit.’ The illness within the book is not quite as clear of an echo as White Mask, it’s still strange. The last thing I expected when I wrote a book with a pandemic was to have its launch interrupted by an actual pandemic.

You don’t feel clever, or proud, when you predict these sorts of things. You feel guilty when you see the nightmares about the future come true instead of the dreams. You wanted it to remain something cautionary. I’m nervous about how to talk about the book—I don’t want to be seen as profiteering off of something so terrible, yet I know some people have also found reading about fictitious versions of current events calming. Because books have a narrative shape, an ending that’s often hopeful. This is comforting when we don’t know when or how this liminal in between phase will end or what our new normal will be.

I worked hard on the book, and it’s had the most pre-pub buzz I’ve had so far (this is my 6th book). I wanted—I want—it to do well. It’s a particularly painful wistfulness to wonder how it would have done if the supply chain was normal. Instead I see the hardback out of stock at certain retailers and I wonder when it’ll be re-stocked and if potential readers will go to alternate retailers like Bookshop or just shrug and move onto one of the other many books out there in the world instead. When my phone pings a reminder for a planned in person event that isn’t happening now, I daydream about that parallel present where none of this happened. My mom is still halfway around the world instead of visiting me like she was meant to be just now, again wearing a mask outside the house, but for a different reason. She and my parents-in-law are in their 60s and 70s, and my mother-in-law is being treated for cancer. I worry about them every day, about everyone who is at risk.

It’s a gut punch. I didn’t want this future. None of us did.

I hope we move towards a better future.

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Laura Lam: Website | Twitter

Goldilocks: Doylestown Books | Indiebound | Amazon | Powells | B&N