by Arkady Martine

Cover image

Publisher: Subterranean Press
Copyright: 2023
ISBN: 1-64524-034-7
Format: Kindle
Pages: 109

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Arkady Martine is the author of the wonderful Teixcalaan duology, a political space opera. Rose/House is a standalone science fiction novella in an entirely different subgenre.

Basit Deniau was a legendary architect whose trademark was infusing his houses with artificial intelligences. A house AI is common in this future setting, but what Deniau did was another kind of genius. He has been dead for a year when this story opens. The carbon of his body has been compressed into diamond and displayed on a plinth deep inside his final creation. Rose House.

Dr. Selene Gisil was his student. It was not a comfortable relationship. She is now the only person permitted entry into Rose House, allowed to examine its interior architecture and the archive of Deniau's work that is stored there. Once per year, she may enter for precisely one week. No one else in the world is permitted to enter, ever.

Selene went in the first time she was allowed. She lasted three days before fleeing.

There is a law in the United States, the Federal Artificial Intelligence Surveillance Act, that sets some requirements for the behavior of artificial intelligences. One of its requirements is a duty-of-care notification: an artificial intelligence must report the presence of a dead body to the nearest law enforcement agency. Rose House's call to the China Lake Police Precinct to report the presence of a dead body in the sealed house follows the requirements of the law to the letter.

"Cause of death," said Maritza.

I'm a piece of architecture, Detective. How should I know how humans are like to die?

After that the line went to the dull hang-up tone, and Rose House would not take her return calls. Not even once.

Rose/House has some of the structure of a locked-room mystery. Someone is dead, but no one at the scene can get inside the house to see who. Selene is the only person who can enter, but she was in Turkey at the time of the killing and has an air-tight alibi. How could someone be in the house at all? And how did they die?

It also has some of the structure of a police procedural. First one and then the other detective of the tiny local precinct are pulled into the investigation, starting, as one might expect, by calling Selene Gisil.

But I'm not sure I would describe this novella as following either of those genres. By the end of the story, we do learn some of the things one might expect to learn from a detective novel, but that never felt like the true thrust of the story. If you want a detailed explanation of what happened, or the pleasure of trying to guess the murderer before the story tells you, this may not be the novella for you.

Instead, Martine was aiming for disturbing eeriness. This is not quite horror — nothing explicitly horrific happens, although a couple of scenes are disturbing — but Rose House is deeply unsettling. The best character of the story is Maritza, the detective initially assigned to the case, who is trying to ignore the weirdness and do her job. The way she approaches that task leads to some fascinating interactions with Rose House that I thought were the best parts of the story.

This story was not really my thing, even though I love stories about sentient buildings and there are moments in this story where Rose House is delightfully nonhuman in exactly the way that I enjoy. The story is told in a way that requires the reader to piece together the details of the conclusion themselves, and I prefer more explicit explanation in stories that start with a puzzle. It's also a bit too close to horror for me, specifically in the way that the characters (Selene most notably) have disturbing and oddly intense emotional reactions to environments that are only partly described. But I read this a few weeks ago and I'm still thinking about it, so it clearly is doing something right.

If you like horror, or at least half-explained eeriness, it's likely you will enjoy this more than I did. This portrayal of AI is an intriguing one, and I'd enjoy reading more about it in a story focused on character and plot rather than atmosphere.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2023-06-23

Last modified and spun 2023-06-24