Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 14, 2017

Konstantin (2012), by Tom Bullough

Konstantin was a serendipitous find at the library.  It’s a fairly simple story, but beautifully written, and there are some heart-stopping moments to propel the narrative along.

Based on the real life story of the Russian/Soviet scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, this novella tells the story of the emergence of his interest in rocketry and astronautics, and how he overcame all manner of difficulties to become one of the founders of space travel.  But the book is not a fictionalised biography, it is slices of an imagined life, focussing on the childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood of its subject.  And Russia, with its magnificent landscapes and brutal weather, is almost a character too.

The book begins with Kostya’s childhood in Ryazan on the river Oka where his father Eduard Ignatyevich is a forester.  He is an adventurous child with an enquiring mind but he falls victim to scarlet fever and is left with residual deafness.  Because he cannot hear properly and his mother Maria Ivanova fusses over him, he is teased by his cousin and almost drowns in the frozen river. It would have been a loss to the world if he had.

Kostya is fascinated by the solar system and loves to make models of inventions like the steam engine, but he falls behind at school.  His father, who believes passionately in the life of the mind, is very disappointed but he supports Kostya with an allowance for self-study in Moscow.  By sheer good luck he becomes acquainted with the librarian at the Chertkovsky library, and it is Nikolai Fedorovich Federov who brings him a copy of Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon. By now Kostya understands enough of physics to identify the flaws in Verne’s science – and to posit an alternative.  He thinks there might be some way to harness the Earth’s centrifugal force.

The brutal poverty of those pre-Soviet days almost kills Kostya, and his interest in the daughter of a very wealthy aristocrat turns out to be perilous too.  Kostya is headstrong, and passionate about his ideas, but the book concludes with his early career as an inspiring teacher, making experimental models on the side.  In real life it was the Soviets who harnessed his genius and the epilogue reveals his legacy: it tells the harrowing story of Alexei Leonov’s first space walk in 1965 and near-disastrous re-entry.

I can’t help but note here that I remember the marvel of this space walk, which took place before the author Tom Bullough was even born.  But I had never heard of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, and I enjoyed reading his story.

Recommended for anyone who’s not blasé about the miracle of space travel!

Author: Tom Bullough
Title: Konstantin
Publisher: Viking Penguin, 2012
ISBN: 9780670920921
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Konstantin


  1. Sounds like a perfect one for me then…. :) Thanks fo the heads up! :)


  2. It sounds an extraordinary story that he would learn enough about physics without a formal education to spot the flaw. Can you imagine what else he could have achieved?


    • I think a lot of people were self-educated in the days before secondary education was compulsory and free. Here in Australia there were mechanics institutes in almost every country town where working-class men who’d had to leave school at 12 would go to teach themselves using the books in the library.
      And in the early C20th there was a whole industry of Teach Yourself Books where people used them for self-improvement. The books were laid out simply and clearly (my parents had one for chess) and sequentially and they were easy to follow.
      But Konstantin was also a genius, which helps!


      • We had those libraries too – they were created and funded by the coal miners. Maybe its because I am not scientifically minded at all but I would think some subjects like physics impossible to learn without guidance….


        • Perhaps they had those libraries in other countries too. I think they were a brilliant idea that gave people opportunities they might not otherwise have had.
          Of course, we only hear about the success stories, from the people who were able to teach themselves. And we need to remember that, because of the curve of normal distribution, amongst those groups of ambitious men who wanted to better themselves, there would have been people with very high IQs, who were denied higher education simply by lack of money. So those people would have found it easy.
          I’ve said ‘men’. I don’t know if women could access the Mechanics Institutes here…


          • Women certainly didn’t get into our version of these libraries – strictly men only for they were the ones who were considered to be worth educating since they could go to get jobs whereas the women were destined for nothing more than laundry, child rearing ….


            • Yup. It seems like the Dark Ages, doesn’t it!


  3. Nice to see this review here. I met the author at a Penguin bloggers event when the book first came out and he very kindly signed my copy. Shamefully, I’m yet to read it, but your review’s a nice reminder to pull it off my TBR for a read.


    • He seems an interesting man… the blurb says he’s Welsh, but his descriptions of the Russian landscape make him sound like a local:) I wonder if he went there, or if he did the research via Google…


      • Yes, he’s young and Welsh. I vaguely remember him saying a relative/friend lived in Russia, so I looked up his website and there’s a terrific explanation of how he came to write it here:


  4. If only we spent more on Space and less on arms, think where we might be!

    Liked by 2 people

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