I am not into horror, almost ever, but I am always down for creepy, even super creepy. I especially love super creepy science fiction with an unreliable narrator, so Genevieve Valentine’s novella Dream Houses is honestly pretty perfect for me. Plus, short! I am so busy this summer I can barely find time to sleep, so it was wonderful to read something so great that was also so short, but that has had me thinking about it for a month.
Dream Houses is about a lot of things, family, class struggle, murder, space travel and madness. However, the frame story is that in a future where space travel takes a while and humans are colonizing and terraforming other worlds, goods have to get from place to place. They do that in merchant ships (Kite-class) that travel into deep space for long stretches of time — seven years in this case.
Crew members are meant to stay awake for about six months at the beginning and end of the trip, but otherwise they spend the rest of the trip in stasis and the ship is guided by an AI. Of course you must know by now, this is not what happens. Amadis Reyes, a low level crew member of the ship Menkalinan, wakes all too early to find that the rest of the crew is dead and she is alive on a mere technicality. It appears that the crew’s deaths are due to some kind of purposeful sabotage and we are off and running with the mystery of the novella.
True to its strong sci-fi roots, this is a pretty classic space story in some ways. There is an exploration of class conflict (how people who transport merchandise are treated — the kinds of jobs Amadis has done in previously, as well as the way she grew up); there is the threat of Amadis not being able to make it to her destination without starving to death first (if the crew is supposed to be fed intravenously throughout their stasis period and they’ve been sabotaged, Amadis doesn’t really have enough food to make it to her destination, Gliese); plus there’s the overall threat presented by the sabotage in the first place. Why was the crew killed, why did Amadis survive and what is in the mysterious cargo hold that the ship’s AI won’t let her into? And is Capella (the AI) really as sinister as it seems, or is Amadis imagining things?
But these part of the “adventure” aren’t what make this novella worth recommending, though the growing creep factor in the relationship between Capella and Amadis as her sanity crumbles is certainly compelling; there is an indication that more complex AIs are available for purchase, but that this ship simply has the cheap version. So there is some question about whether or not Capella isn’t really the cheap version at all.
Though this question is certainly important and helps move the plot at a pretty quick pace, it’s Amadis herself that is truly interesting. Told from a first person perspective, we recognize that we can’t trust Amadis as she starves and becomes paranoid, but the flashes into her past really make the story. Her relationship with her brother is particularly intriguing. The question of whether or not her family loves her is presented over and over in such a nebulous way that I felt practically compelled to try asking her: “WHAT IS ACTUALLY HAPPENING HERE, AMADIS?” and then try to therapize her into some better ways of thinking. What can I say? I’m a fixer.
Of course, that’s not possible and that’s the real magic of the book. We’re left wondering about the mystery of the ship, of course, but about Amadis herself. How do all these memories of her family fit together? What really happened between her and her brother? Between her and her parents? How do the events that take place in her time as a trucker fit into all of this? And honestly, does it mean anything if we understand that Amadis is going mad? Or does it mean everything, because this is what’s left as Amadis gradually loses her mind?
I don’t know the answers to any of those questions and it’s why I particularly love this book. It’s not a “fun” read, but it’s certainly given me something deep to sink my teeth into and something to puzzle over in my distracted moments this summer. I’d say that if you loved some of the creepier aspects of the show Firefly, this is a great book for you.
Allison Carr Waechter is living on the surface of a very humid sun this summer. Thanks, climate change. Thanks.