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WesternSFA


The Experiment Known as Rose Marie Hernandez Williamson
by Louise Robertson
Brick Cave Books, $15.99, 263pp
Published: January 2020

No, this isn't another Arizona author, even if this novel was published by Mesa's Brick Cave Media, as they do publish work by people from the other side of the state's border. Louise Robertson hails from Washington, DC and lives in Ohio. This is her debut novel and it's a fascinating one, however unwieldy its title, which turns out to be rather appropriate.

Rose Marie turns fifteen about the time we meet her. The Hernandez is from her mother Melissa and the Williamson is from her father Ted. The experiment part is because she was born nine months into a multi-decade space mission, meaning that she may or may not have been conceived on Earth. Either way, she's an unexpected passenger on a ship that can't change its mission because of her but now has to feed nine people on rations designed for eight. Now she's being studied for many reasons: she has developed in a quarter of Earth gravity and is the only child on a relatively small ship.

That ship is WSC-1GRM-X, though its crew of eight call it the Grimm Explorer because their mission is to visit three of the nearest planets to Earth that sit in the Goldilocks zone of their solar systems. Not too hot and not too cold, just right. They've already visited two of those by the time we show up, with the third scheduled for the way back. They're fifteen years and nine hundred light years into mission and they have a whole bunch of rocks to show for it.

Robertson tells this story from Rosie's perspective in a conversational fifteen-year-old voice that feels like it's recording a diary that she knows will be read. For a long time, it's about the minutiae, the bits and bats that mean something to a girl trying to describe her environment to people who have never known it but whose own environment is completely alien to her. Think about it. She's fifteen years old and has only met eight people in her life, not one of them of her generation. She's only known fifteen people who aren't her.

And then think about it some more. Her best friend, Ethan O'Neil Jr, the son of the Grimm Explorer's mission controller, is hundreds of light years away, so they can only talk remotely with a lag. She goes to school on a planet on whose surface she's never trod. Ethan thinks she's lucky because she's living in space; Rosie thinks Ethan's lucky because he gets to eat apples. Her clothes are all made from the clothes of the adults onboard ship. Everything is recycled. Everywhere is a hazard. She helps out with the ship's garden and other menial tasks, but her hobby is shooting stop motion videos using animals she's never seen that she makes out of foil.

I loved this matter-of-fact approach to a story. It seems weird to call it grounding, given that Rosie has never set foot on the ground of any planet, but we learn exactly what it's like to be on a small ship on a long mission. We know how they feed themselves and how they handle privacy when everyone is in each other's laps most of the time. She's a very well-adjusted kid for someone who's both never been anywhere and also been further than almost anyone else in history.

Of course, it doesn't stay routine for long. About a fifth of the way in, something happens and, quite frankly, anything that happens of note on a ship this small is going to turn everything upside down. A further fifth and something deadly happens, something that inevitably changes Rosie's young life to a massive degree. Suddenly we're not in a YA take on 'Dark Star' any more, we're in one of Heinlein's juveniles and there's a lot of tension about whether the Grimm Explorer will ever make it home.

I should emphasise that all that can't count as a spoiler, because that's a slightly more in-depth take on the back cover blurb. However, I'll add that this isn't a surprising read. Once we've been let in on a few chapters worth of background and routine, any guess we hazard as to where the book will end up is likely to be pretty close to what does indeed happen, but that's not the value of this book. This is an impressive character study of a young lady who finds herself, through no fault of her own, in a rather unique situation, one that I'm very happy I read about in this book.

There are some subplots going on that affect Rosie's importance back on Earth, and I won't say that I don't think they should be there because it's definitely a good thing to highlight how what Rosie sees as routine makes her something of a celebrity to the population of a planet she's not yet visited. That contrast does build this novel but, at the end of the day, it's always about her and what she has to do, what she does without needing to and what's going on around her. Her position as unintended guest, interstellar passenger and inherent experiment makes everything she does fascinating.

This is a debut novel and it's not a difficult read. It flows really well, it's over before we know it and it doesn't surprise; but it feels like it's the sort of book that will become important to people who aren't anybody yet but will be way down the road. I left it with the impression that the book will sell and do a bit of business but not seem to make a dent in the industry, only to show up on a talk show a couple of decades later when someone who's done something astounding says, "Well, I read this book way back when I was a kid that had a crazy name, 'The Experiment Known as Rose Marie Hernandez Williamson', and it spoke to me so much that I knew I had to go to space as soon as possible and, well, I did." ~~ Hal C F Astell

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