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
Publisher: Viking Penguin, 2012
Source: Kingston Library
Available from Fishpond: Konstantin