Genevieve Valentine’s Dream Houses, a suspenseful but thoughtful 2014 novella from WSFA Press & Wyrm Press, opens with protagonist Amadis awakening early from hibernation on the junky spaceship she’s a low-ranking crew member for — and the rest of the crew are dead in their hibernation pods. This makes her the de facto captain with no one for company except the ship’s creepy A.I. on a six year trip with no real communication options and not enough food.
The narrative dips back and forth in time over the course of Amadis’ journey, and the reader gets to know and mourn the small crew as well as Amadis’ fraught relationship with her brother. The particular run is a simple cargo transport to a far-off, barely habitable planetary outpost and thus attracts crew that are a little dodgy, or just can’t stop running — except for the captain Lai, who’s something of an enigma. Amadis and her brother love each other in a way that’s tainted with the traumatic horrors of their past and the resultant divergent goals of their present.
These flashbacks form the emotional backbone of the story, but the most interesting character is the ship’s A.I., Capella, who is alternately kind and attendant to Amadis’ safety and horrifyingly controlling. It’s a much more complex rendering of the familiar sociopathic AI we’re used to, since we can’t trust the perceptions of the unreliable narrator, whose mind is inevitably unraveling due to her ordeal. Even taking the worst possible interpretation of the available options, there’s a clear sense of the why of Capella’s actions. The creature’s fundamental solitude is juxtaposed with the protagonist’s.
Mysteries compound on mysteries, not all of which are tied in neat little bows by the novella’s ending. Symbolic imagery — music and architecture — playing into the themes of the book I found sometimes nebulous, sometimes distinctively haunting. I’m not sure if all the narrative threads ever come together by the end of the text, but I’m not sure if they’re supposed to, either. Regardless, this is a story that stuck with me long after I read it, and is emblematic of Valentine’s work, with family relationships and grim themes made bearable by occasional moments of levity.