It takes a certain type to crew a ship that drops you seven years at a time into the Deep. Kite-class cargo ships like Menkalinan get burned-out veterans, techs who’ve been warned off-planet, medics who weren’t much good on the ground. The Gliese-D run isn’t quite the end of the line, but it’s getting there. No cachet, no rewards, no future; their trading posts get Kites full of cargo that the crew never ask questions about, because if it’s headed for Gliese-D, it’s probably something nobody wanted.
A year into the Deep, Amadis Reyes wakes up. Menkalinan is sounding the alarm; something’s wrong. The rest of the crew are dead.
That’s not even what’s wrong.
Genevieve Valentine’s Capclave 2014 offering, Dream Houses is a limited-run printed volume; despite a whimsical-seeming cover and title, the tagline for the novella gives a clearer impression of the kind of story it is: a sort of isolation in space, disaster tale in the tradition of Joanna Russ’ We Who Are About To….
The key difference is that Valentine’s protagonist is in total isolation on the cargo ship she is awoken on; the only person to survive an unknown disaster that killed the rest of the crew. The story of Dream Houses intersperses her strained relationship with her brother with the present time as she slowly succumbs to the inevitable madness brought about by isolation for years on end; this is a dark tale that revels in its darkness, a story that uses isolation to get into the head of its protagonist and really dig around there.
The twist on this is that there is a companion for Amadis, in the form of Menkalinan’s on-board AI; the way Valentine plays with the relationship between human and machine intelligences – their different understandings of the world, perspectives, and constraints – is a fascinating thing to see as it develops across the course of Dream Houses; watching the relationship change and change again, as revelation after revelation comes out, and as time passes, is beautiful to watch as it keeps shifting the story beneath one, changing the parameters subtly and less subtly with an incredibly deft hand that really conveys the tragedy and humanity of our characters.
The other strand of the story, the relationship between Amadis and her brother, is a similarly slippery one; Dream Houses jumps around in that relationship rather than taking a strict chronological approach, and again slowly unfolds the layers of the relationship back to a core defining event. As it does so it changes our perception of Amadis and her brother, each time altering how sympathetic we are to each of them, changing our understanding of their character, and completely rewriting what had gone before in a really simple yet effective way.
Dream Houses, then, is a complex and beautiful novella of interlocking parts, and Genevieve Valentine has created a really wonderful science fiction character study here.