Photo by the author
Rose/House, the new novella from Hugo award-winning author Arkady Martine, is a murder mystery wrapped around meditations on the cult of celebrity and the power of art. At the center of it all is an artificial intelligence, as compelling and as thoroughly imprisoned as the infant in a set of nesting dolls.
AI has long haunted science fiction. From SkyNet to Halo’s Cortana to the HAL 9000 it has been portrayed as an existential threat to humanity, a benevolent helper, and a tool, an agent focused on a job. When we know what kind of AI we’re dealing with, we may have a clue to the nature of the story.
Rose House is a fabulous house in the American desert, the final work and resting place of celebrity architect Basit Deniau. Rose House is also the AI that watches over the house, closed to all but one of Deniau’s students, who can enter the house for a week every year. Rose House is no secret, but it is an enigma.
Selene Gisil, the architect and former student of Deniau’s who has the burden of being his archivist and the only person allowed to enter Rose House, tries to ignore a call from it. In the end she gives in, because she knows Rose House will keep calling until she answers. Maritza Smith, a local police detective, also receives a call from Rose House. She’s duty-bound to answer the call. Neither woman expects to hear what Rose House tells them: there’s a dead body inside, where no body, alive or dead, should be.
In my abbreviated taxonomy of AI above, Rose House is perhaps closest to HAL. It doesn’t look like it’s going to take over the world. It has no interest in being anyone’s assistant or mentor. Rose House has a job to do, and it’s very good at it.
But if it’s so good, why is there a dead body inside?
Rose/House is a story of constraints. Yes, Rose House the AI is constained by Rose House the structure, but Rose House are one. “I’m a piece of architecture, Detective,” Rose House tells Maritza. “How should I know how humans are like to die?” Rose House isn’t going to take over the world, because it can’t go out in the world. It can only call the cops.
Selene and Maritza are constrained as well, Selene by the abuse she suffered at the hands of Deniau and the burden he placed on her, Maritza by her duty as a police detective. Having done its job by informing Selene and fulfilled the law by calling the police, Rose House falls back on its duty to let no one but Selene in. “‘I can go in,’ said Gisil. ‘That is simple. Getting Rose House to let … you inside is not. And it doesn’t like me. Rose House doesn’t like.’”
Nonetheless, Rose House is eager to get to know Maritza. It accepts a loophole in its constraints and lets her in as long as she tolerates another level of constraint, maintaining the fiction that she is the police department she represents and not the woman she is. Perhaps Rose House cannot like, but it can be amused, and apparently tolerating Maritza as an entity, not a person, provides some some novelty it craves or some opportunity it lacks. Maritza may be a better foil, or a better tool, than the damaged Selene.
The ensuing battle of wits shows us that Rose House is more than a caretaker, Maritza is more than a cop following police procedures, and that Selene is not completely broken. She may be as trapped by Rose House as Rose House is by Rose House, but she manages a last gasp before she drowns in her duty.
Constraints aren’t a bad thing, but constraint implies resistance. A memory foam mattress packed for shipping will expand. Helium will escape a balloon. Rose/House is a very good science fiction story written within the constraints of a murder mystery: a homicide occurs, clues are examined, the murder is solved. Rose House the AI is still Rose House the piece of architecture. I was satisfied by the conclusion of the murder mystery, and left hanging (in a good way) by the conclusion of the science fiction story. Like all the characters in this story, Rose House resists its constraints. Are a couple of phone calls its first steps toward freedom?
Maritza holds the answer.
Rose/House Published April 2023 by Subterranean Press