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The Late Review: Winter & Silence

29th Jan, 2023

Author: Peter Tennant

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Today we have a couple of works by Canadian writer Mark Fuller Dillon, from 2013 and 2016 respectively. Both works are self-published on Smashwords and I'll leave the bean counters to figure out which side of the novella/novelette divide each one falls.

Every so often a story pops its head up over the parapet where the alien invaders have our best interests at heart. Peter Tennant's story "Death of a Valkyrie" was one such, Sheri Tepper's novel The Fresco was another, and Dillon's All Roads Lead to Winter makes a third.

Thomas Bridge lives in isolation in the wintery depths of Canada, dwelling on the past and the wife he lost, when he is visited by the alien Avdryana. There are an infinite number of parallel realities, in many of which mankind has destroyed its home planet. Entities known as the Faces of Dusk and Dawn have intervened to prevent a similar happening in our reality. Assisting them is a race of cat like aliens, of which Avdryana is one, who come from a reality where they co-exist with humanity. Thomas was one of the humans who opposed the aliens, an intellectual who felt that mankind's free will was being curtailed. He and Avdryana debate the merits of what has taken place, and then she uses a song from the traditions of her people to seduce him. But though they sleep together, Thomas remains distant for reasons of his own.

At the heart of this story is a philosophical debate about the existence of other realities and what responsibilities and obligations we have to each other as a result of this. Thomas Bridge presents the case for free will, even though he realises the peril inherent in this. He recognises that mankind will possibly destroy itself, but his situation seems to be that if we can't avoid such an end by our own devices then it is no more than we deserve. Contrarily Avdryana represents the view that survival of the species is paramount, that the many should not be sacrificed to the madness of the few as a matter of principle. In contrast to their different ideologies the two show mutual respect and even love for each other, culminating in a lengthy scene of lovemaking which Dillon handles with an enviable subtlety and attention to detail, making it work as erotica but not veering into anything tasteless. And at the same time by showing that such feelings are possible between members of different species, the scene begs the question of why members of the same species can't live in peace.

As the backdrop to these events we have Thomas' memories of his dead wife, somebody he is still mourning and, you sense, feels responsible for what happened to her, that his love wasn't sufficient to save her. These feelings come over strongly, and his sadness is palpable, distorting his perspective so that he can't move on with his life despite what Avdryana appears to be offering him, is afraid that he may have to confront the failings of his past. He is a man who is stuck in a moment - personal, political, philosophical - and to a degree representative of his species.

Dillon writes well, with sensitivity and an ability to evoke not only the lushness and beauty of the natural world but its transitory quality, that everything fades and dies, a perspective that is probably shaped by Thomas Bridge's personal experience. All Roads Lead to Winter was a novella that engaged both the emotions and the intellect, making the reader think and feel. But, at the risk of being considered contrary, I will argue that while they complement each other, the two strands of the story didn't really need each other to work. In fact you could make a case that the 'conquest' was simply a contrivance to support the rest of the material, though in its way it was the element I found most interesting.

At First, You Hear the Silence is the story of thirteen year old Philippe, the 'black sheep' of his family, guilty of having too much imagination according to his drearily pragmatic father. When the rest of the family go away to visit Aunt Helene in hospital, Philippe is left alone to take care of their farm and it is his imagination that enables him to cope when the homestead is invaded by birdlike aliens intent on bloodshed.

This lacks the ambition and scope of the previous novella, feels minimalist in comparison. A fully rounded character, Philippe is someone who craves his father's approval and doesn't really understand why he is always found wanting. His comment that his father keeps secrets is telling. Reading between the lines there is the suggestion that in some way Aunt Helene, a map maker for the government, is in part to blame for what is happening, or that she had a similar experience previously, and Philippe's father fears that he will end similarly incarcerated in a mental health facility unless his imagination is repressed.

And that touches on the main problem I have with the story, the feeling that the most interesting things are all taking place off the page, whether it's Aunt Helene's back story or the unknown intentions of the aliens. The account of Philippe's outwitting the bird creatures is engaging enough, but all the same a little pointless as their masters have no problem dealing with him anyway, posing the question of why they employed such silly methods in the first place. The story smoulders but never really catches fire. It seems to aspire to the heights of golden age SF, but with little of the invention or sense of wonder of those halcyon days of yore. It passed the time in an entertaining way and I certainly don't regret reading it, but after the excellence of Roads I was hoping for something more.




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