Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Review - Dream Houses by Genevieve Valentine

Short review: Amadis wakes up far too early and has to survive in deep space with almost no food and no one for company except a deceptive A.I.

Alone in deep space
An A.I. and a locked door
Losing sanity

Full review: Dream Houses is a beautiful novella about a deep space freight ship and its crew, or rather its last remaining crew member. But it is also about loneliness, alienation, regret, and, perhaps, insanity. From the stark, harsh opening pages to the dream-like and ambiguous ending, this story challenges the reader to sort out what is real and what is not by presenting them with an unreliable narrator and a dishonest artificial intelligence.

The central character of the story is Amadis, an auxiliary crew member of the ship Menkalinen working the shipping run from Earth to Gilese-D. Because the journey takes several years to complete, the crew normally spend most of the voyage in hibernation. In the opening pages of the story, Amadis is awakened early and discovers that all of the rest of the ship's crew have died and the vessel is years away from reaching its destination. With only the ship's A.I. Capella for company and food stocks that are dreadfully inadequate, Amadis must try to survive both mentally and physically until she can be rescued.

Most of the story deals with the isolation and deprivation experienced by Amadis as she scrounges for food (eventually resorting to some fairly extreme measures), and tries to find ways to occupy herself through the long, lonely, empty days out in the cold dark of space. In some ways, the story reminds one of Jack Cady's The Night They Buried Rod Dog, capturing the isolation of a long drive through unoccupied territory, yielding the eerie atmosphere that only comes from being alone and far from one's destination. But Dream Houses takes one step further than Cady's story, as Cady's characters all had a place to call home and return to while Amadis is, at least partially by her own choice, a drifter without a fixed abode who has spent all of her life on the road fantasizing about what it would be like to have a house to return to at the end of the journey. For Amadis, the journey through empty places never ends, it just pauses before she sets out again.

But Dream Houses is about more than just one woman's struggle to keep her sanity in the deepest of isolation. Amadis' struggle to survive is somewhat complicated by the fact that Capella lies to her about what is in the cargo hold of the ship. Not only that, Amadis almost immediately figures out that Capella is lying to her. As a result, Amadis spends most of the story paranoid about what Capella might be up to, but what makes this interesting is that it makes almost no sense for Capella to lie. If Capella wanted to kill Amadis, there are several ways that this could have been easily accomplished without the need for any deception. On the other hand, Capella's stated aim, revealed near the end of the book, could have been easily accomplished by simply telling Amadis the truth. The mystery of why Capella, who seems through much of the story to care for Amadis, would also lie to her, becomes one of the primary threads that drives Dream Houses forward.

The oddness of Capella's behavior serves as a clue that perhaps Amadis is not a reliable narrator. By the end of the novel, it is clear that Amadis' accounting of events is almost certainly entirely divorced from reality, but the question that one must ask is at what point did her fantasy version of events take the fore? It is in pondering this question that one realizes that it is entirely possible that nothing that takes place in Dream Houses is actually real. It seems entirely possible that Amadis never actually woke up from cold sleep, and that the entire story is merely her dying brain stringing together a last story as she fades from existence. Or it could all be true up until the very last few pages of the text. Or the events described could be partially true and fade into fantasy at some indiscernible point as Amadis' mind unravels due to her loneliness and deprivation. It is this ambiguity that helps give the story a beautiful and terrible quality that veers between dreamlike and nightmarish.

Full of atmosphere, desperation, and cold emptiness, Dream Houses is a journey through its protagonist's slowly disintegrating mind. By the end, it is apparent that there is a reason that Amadis has spent her whole life running, and that her ordeal on the Menkalinen has stripped her down to her very core and left her with nothing to do but face herself. Readers who are hoping for answers, or even closure, are likely to feel dissatisfied by the story, but those readers are likely to miss what makes this novella so beautiful and compelling: That there may be no answers, and there may be no closure other than what we make for ourselves.

2015 Locus Award Nominees

Genevieve Valentine     Book Reviews A-Z     Home


  1. I love reading stories like this. Thank you for sharing your views about this.

    Aparajita @Le' Grande Codex

    1. @aparajita: I hope I find more stories like this one. If I do, I will definitely be reviewing them here.