Strange Horizons, August 19, 2013

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Strange Horizons, August 19, 2013

A Plant (Whose Name is Destroyed)” by Seth Dickinson

Reviewed by Daniel Woods.

“I don’t understand,” Naveen says, “why you didn’t just tell me.”

Naveen’s boyfriend is named Hayden. And Hayden is a god. Improbable as it may seem, a collection of small miracles has confirmed it, and now Naveen must fight with himself over what to think, and what to do next. How do you concentrate on a relationship when your partner is the single most disruptive element in history? What is Hayden and Naveen, compared to Hayden and the rest of the world?

It may at first look like a typical cookie-cutter plot – science vs. religion with a gay god thrown in for controversy – but Dickinson’s piece is actually rather captivating. Naveen is a scientist who relies on empirical evidence and “Bayesian statistics” for making sense of the world. As such, the piece is written in a series of experiments and observations, mostly relating to the “love hypothesis.” This might seem cold, but it allows Dickinson to demonstrate the emotional distance that Naveen keeps from people (especially Hayden). Naveen’s need to “pick apart” life eventually comes to demonstrate his trust issues, his low self-esteem etc, and watching him analyze his happiness away is very poignant. “… the first moment that Naveen thinks of [Hayden] as something other than human [is] when it begins to seem possible that Hayden could love him.” It’s an impressive use of a relatively simple narrative device.

Dickinson augments his characterisation by inserting dozens of tiny personal details into the prose. This is very well executed, and by the end we feel like we know Naveen – his past, his thought processes, his likes and dislikes. Hayden too is a satisfying creation, with just the right amount of otherworldliness in his outlook to lend him divine credence, and just the right amount of humanity to make him a good boyfriend. Hayden might be a god, but he still gets happy, sad, uncomfortable; he cries, laughs, has sex, and enjoys a nice cold beer. The mythology, incidentally, is lifted from a Sumerian creation story, in which Enki (who originally fathered the cosmos) falls to temptation, and nearly dies for it. Hayden is the god Enshagag, born to help save Enki. Dickinson’s references to this myth seem to be accurate, and his use of Sumerian mythology is a refreshing change from the more commonly drawn-upon Greek, Egyptian, etc. But aside from providing the piece with a title, and giving Hayden a touch more believability, the use of myth here seems to serve little purpose, and that was a bit disappointing.

In its simpliest light, this is a story about two people who love each other trying to make it work. Because of that, I felt invested in the characters, and the piece held my attention throughout. “A Plant (Whose Name Is Destroyed)” is a sad, engrossing tale of a man so constrained by his fear of belief (self-belief, belief in anything that defies logic), that when confronted with something extraordinary, with the possibility of real happiness, he can’t find a way to process it. Love cannot be analyzed through Naveen’s prism of science and Bayesian statistics. Watching that love begin to falter needlessly is a heartbreaking experience, and although “relationship stories” might not appeal to everyone, I’d still recommend giving this piece a chance. Personally, I found it rather moving.