The Unman (novel) by Vadim Shefner
English Publication History: The Unman/Kovrigin’s Chronicles (1980, Macmillan)
Original: Russian (Человек с пятью “не”, или Исповедь простодушного), 1967
Translated by Alice Stone Nakhimovsky & Alexander Nakhimovsky, 1980
Synopsis: Even when born, expectations for Stefan were very low when compared to his elder brother, who seemed destined for greatness with a name like Victor. Certainly, as the years progressed, his brother basked in the glory of his accomplishments and the admiration of his parents while Stefan was deemed the un-son: unskillful, unintelligent, unoutstanding, unlucky, and unhandsome. Through his childhood, though he persevered as much as a child could and did the best with what he had, his one inspiration came for his room’s wallpaper: copies of a perfume advertisement featuring a striking girl.
Later in life, his finds himself the junction of many wonderful scientific discoveries, none of which he actually discovered himself but which had been created by the intelligent minds and kindred souls that only wanted to share their discoveries with Stefan. Immediately being struck by the ideas–a hair-growth elixir, an accurate probability computer, and a singing substance among them–the inventors heed a warning that not all was as it seemed. Being unlucky and maybe a shade unbright, Stefan experiences the unpositive sides of each inventions; regardless, he perseveres with the one glimmering spark of gratitude that happened but once in his life: the befriending of a boy in school who he helped push off of a cliff, which was what his friend wanted, anyhow.
Still living in his brother’s deep, dark shadow of success, Stefan follies through life. When that same accurate probability computer predicts that his luck will turn around–after winning cash and a motorcycle–Stefan takes on an even more optimistic perspective on his life. Though nearly everything and everyone had let his down, Stefan knows that he’ll get the chance to make his dreams come true. As he’s always been honest in his life, perhaps he’s due to receive his good karma.
Pre-analysis: Far-fetched tales are often met by two reactions: 1) calm disbelief waiting for the punchline and 2) ecstatic absorption in the yarn. We’ve all met people who have spun yarns and we’ve reacted in both ways, depending on the story-teller. One man’s flight of imagination is another man’s everyday, just as treasure is with trash; what may ring of adventure to the teller may be banal to the listener. Further, when a story seems such a flight of fancy as to border absurd or hugely coincidental, belief is suspended and the listened becomes a passive, uninterested listener. When in written word and when the narrator aims to deliver the story “without embellishment and without evasion” (3), we need to prepare ourselves for the latter reaction: absorption.
Analysis: Granted, this story is rather far-fetched a certainly a work of science fiction; however, there is a certain amount of whit intended to penetrate the story to make it seem larger than life. Perhaps this larger-than-life quality is supposed to counter Stefan’s banal day-to-day life. While he trudges through the complexities of failure and misfortune, coincidence takes a liking to him in order to bear him a gift that could turn it all around… only, Stefan is either too unlucky or too dim to handle it properly.
As mentioned in the pre-analysis, regardless of the situation, Stefan maintains an optimistic perspective; some would consider this optimism to be one of unyielding positivity, others may seem a dim-witted idiot. He’s actually a bit of both. He knows one thing though: when to play and when to fold. He doesn’t sink himself deeper in despair, nor does he drive others into poverty, dismemberment, or death with him–that is exactly where he shines: he’s personable, trusting, honest, reliable, collected, and loyal… he just happens to be a tad short-sighted, however.
And it’s for this reason that the reader cheers him on.
Review: I didn’t think humor had much of a place in Soviet-era science ficiton, what with propaganda, censors, satire, and whatnot. The Unman is a certain surprse when it comes to Soviet science ficiton; granted, don’t apply the “science” label too firmly on this story as it has science-like elements (i.e. a certain friendship) and wild inventions (as mentioned in the pre-analysis). As Stefan’s story is a flight of fancy, so too does Vadim Shefner take a leap from the serious side of Soviet scifi (pardon the alliteration) in order to warm the reader to a likable lass such as Stefan. It’s for fun, not intellectual reflection.