“What Never Was” (short story) by Dmitri Bilenkin
English Publication History: The Uncertainty Principle (Macmillan, 1978)
Original: Russian (То, чего не было), 1971
Translated by Antonina W. Bouis, 1978
Synopsis: Deemed hopeless, Setti Tovious was a suicide case, for whom the Professor was called. The Professor’s remedy: an artificial dream. Setti is then set in a wondrous dream beside the sea with a girl who divulges her love for him; all in all a dream of love, hope, and beauty. Upon awakening, Setti admits his foolishness when the Professor says he’s cured, but what had ailed him before may not be what ails him now, both pains of which need an outlet.
Analysis: I’ve woken from a dream in which I had fallen in love for a girl named Ayuka. I sensed painful longing for something that had never happened, for someone who I had never met. I lived the few days sulking, cradling and cupping that ember of bliss that the winds of time would eventually blow away. Now, I can’t see Ayuka’s face in my mind, nor can I sense the intensity between us, but the fact that a mere dream could have a days’ long effect on me seems remarkable. Dreams, though intangible and fleeting, can have very tangible and lasting effect on a person. The more vivid the experience and emotion, the longer the impression.
Setti Tovious (an anagram: Oust it, Soviet? Sit out Soviet? Soviets, I tout? It’s out, Soviet?) experiences a curated dream meant to rouse him from his depression, to cure of him of suicidal tendencies. It’s not known what drove Setti to suicide. Regardless of what he experienced, giving a disabled man dreams of extraordinary ability may not enliven his spirit, but rather the opposite: what’s possible may not always be within reach.
Review: The story has three parts: two pages of set-up involving who the patient and the Professor, fours pages of the surreal remedy, followed by two pages of effect with the patient and Professor again. It’s short and predictable, but that doesn’t detract from the syrupy dreamscape that’s painted in the middle of the story. If you’ve lived a good life, you can probably recollect a similar nostalgic pang takes place somewhere special with someone special. Bilenkin captures this really well and frames it with a blank yet sympathetic character.