Dream Houses is a separately published (something I have been reading a lot of recently) novella, and while it is comparatively short, Genieve Valentine manages to pack a lot into the small number of pages. The set-up is almost classical – Amadis (and I doubt the name is quite coincidental, in spite of the gender swap), our protagonist and first person narrator wakes up from cold sleep on board of the starship she is a crew member (or, more precisely, an auxiliary) to find out that everyone but her is dead and she somehow has to survive the next five years with insufficient food supplies and an AI named Capella as her only company.
That bare outline of the story might already remind you of several things, and indeed Genevieve Valentine cheerfully plunders a whole arsenal of famous Science Fiction movies: Alien (space truckers!), 2001 (possibly malicious spaceship computer!) and Dark Star (bored in space!) and probably a lot more I did not notice. She does make no attempt to hide it, either, because she does not need to: In spite of all the references, Dream Houses never feels derivative, but does very much its own thing. Part of which consists of not just describing how Amadis attempts to survive and stay sane while also attempting to figure out what exactly went wrong on board of her ship, but in also presenting the reader with long flashbacks from Amadis’ past, centered mostly around her relationship with her brother. Those parts are as bleak as the description of her struggle for survival on board of the space ship, and overall it has to be said that, in spite of occasional flashes of humour, Dream Houses is not a cheerful book by any standard, in fact it is quite depressing. This actually is in favour of the book, as it shows the emotional impact it has on the reader as well as Genevieve Valentine’s skill as a writer to keep us reading even as things become increasingly bleaker towards the unavoidable end – Dream Houses will leave you sad, but it will not leave you untouched.
This is very much a “Golden Age SF” novella – but Golden Age the way I define it, i.e. harkening back to the late 1960s / early 1970s when for SF the exploration of man’s Inner Space became at least as important as imagining bug-eyed aliens Out There – or rather, when there was a keen realization that both were pretty much the same thing, and when writers attempted to find weird new literary forms that would be able to embody all the weird new ideas buzzing around at the time. While Dream Houses is not exactly experimental in its form, it does not subscribe to a simple beginning-middle-end structure either; the flashbacks in particular stir up chronology to slowly coalesce into a picture of what happened in Amadis’ past. She is also not the most reliable of narrators (who would be, after years alone in space?) all of which makes reading Dream Houses a somewhat shifty, unsteady experience, where we can never be sure that things are quite what Amadis makes them appear. Maybe I’m just imagining it, but it seems to me that in recent years there has, after a decade or two where pretty much all published Sf (with, of course, the occasional exception) was either some TV/movie/whatever tie-in or Military SF an increasing trend back towards emphatically literary SF that is not afraid to explore and play with language and narrative structures. But whether it is part of a trend or not, Dream Houses is very recommended – especially for those who enjoy the work of authors like Robert Silverberg or Barry Malzberg.