The making of a scientist

Konstantinby Tom Bullough

When I met Tom Bullough at the Penguin Blogger’s Night last month, I was instantly taken with his reading from his novel Konstantin.  Later, talking to him, he was excited by the finished article and showed me the lovely fold out cover. An oversized paperback original, the dust-jacket is scattered with gilt planets, stars, constellations and little spacemen.  You can see it in full on Tom’s own website here.  I digress already – back to the novel…

Konstantin is the true story of how a boy grew up to become one of the founding fathers of the Russian space programme – a pioneer in rocket science. Bullough concentrates on the period of his childhood, going through to his mid twenties where we leave him as a teacher developing his scientific ideas.  Don’t worry about being blinded by science though; this novel is concerned about a man following a dream.  First however, let me introduce you to the man it is about.

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935) wasn’t born into a normal family. His mother was an educated Russian, his father an orthodox Polish priest, who had been deported to Russia. When he was nine he became deaf as a result of scarlet fever, and became largely self-educated after that, which allowed the boy who read Jules Verne, and dreamed of space to focus on his interests.  He is particularly known for his ‘Rocket Equation’ which relates the mass and power of a rocket to the velocity it can attain – the basics of jet propulsion.

The novel opens in 1867, and Kostya is taking food to his father who is working as a forester:

Kostya hurried down the bank towards the frozen Oka, fine and light in his heavy sheepskin coat as a sparrow in its winter plumage. On the river, the tracks of the woodsmen cut north through the even snow, steering a line towards the pine logs strewn along the shore beneath the forest. Kostya ran and slid on the exposed ice. From the darkness of the birch trees he emerged in the December sunlight, one arm extended for balance, the soup can blazing beneath his shirt and his coat, and nowhere beneath the ice-blue sky could he see any movement beside his own long, wavering shadow.

The long Russian winters form the backdrop to most of this novel. There is no denying the hardship it causes to the average Russian family, but when the sun shines, Bullough’s lyrical prose makes it seem like the best of days, a romantic time for tramping in the snow or going tobogganing. Here, Kostya is waxing lyrical to his brother Ignat on their way to the town’s sledging hill:

‘In my world, anyway, there wouldn’t be any gravity, so it would be easy to pick up anything we liked.  In my world, I would be able to jump versts through the air. I would be able to jump through the clouds and right out into the ether. If I wanted to go to Moscow, I would just have to run and jump and I could fly there, easy. The people in the train would see me zooming past like a cannonball! …’

Kostya was probably lucky to survive his encounter with scarlet fever, and the ensuing deafness frees him to think; later, he will make himself an ear-trumpet which allows him to communicate better and will rarely be seen without it.

Aged 18 he goes off to Moscow where he studies at the free library, and gains a mentor in its librarian Nikolai Federov, a philosopher and proponent of Russian Cosmicsm, which combined culture, religion and ethics with science and evolution to look forward to the future of mankind. With Federov’s encouragement and guidance Kostya flourishes in his self-teaching.

We leave Konstantin a few years later – he’s become an inspirational science teacher to his pupils, he’s married and has become a family man, but we can sense that his best is yet to come…

Set as it is during a period of great change, where science and engineering are beginning to revolutionise life, Bullough manages to combine one man’s dreams and achievements with the essential spaciness of the landscape into a rather fine Russian novel. To cap it all, an exciting coda puts Tsiolkovsky’s influence on those scientists who came after him, firmly on the map telling the story of Alexei Leonov’s spacewalk in 1965.

Kostya’s parents were both fascinating characters not being conventional Russians, and I did miss them in the second half of the book once he’d moved to Moscow.  No detail is missed in Bullough’s descriptions though – from felt boots to the use of the old Russian units of measurement (versts and arshins etc, approx 1km and 71cm respectively), everything is authentic.

Russia, winter and science – three subjects that, when combined with Bullough’s beautifully descriptive prose, made an enticing and charming read. Bullough is a writer I’m longing to read more of. (9/10).

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– I received my copy of Konstantin courtesy of the publisher – Thank you.
– For another review, read Mark’s from Mostly Books write-up.
– Reading this book reminded me of another novel I loved (read pre-blog) about the Russian space programme – Ascent by Jed Mercurio (see below) – which tells how a Russian test pilot goes to the moon in a thoughtful and slightly detached spare style that is not afraid to use technical jargon without explanation, but is totally gripping.

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To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Konstantinby Tom Bullough. Pub March 1st by Penguin Viking, 208 pages, paperback original.
Ascent by Jed Mercurio

4 thoughts on “The making of a scientist

  1. winstonsdad says:

    I saw a exhibition at notts contemporary gallery about the Russian space programme it was really interesting they were quite basic yet so advanced ,

    • gaskella says:

      My friend Mark told me a great story – The Russians were astounded at the millions the US spent on developing the Fisher Space Pen – they just used pencils! No frills…

  2. Mona says:

    What a fascinating book! I love the writing (from the excerpts that you included in your review) and though I’m not a science person, I think the fictional method of storytelling makes this subject more approachable. Definitely adding this one to my to-read list.

    • gaskella says:

      I must admit, I’m always more likely to read a fictionalised biography than a real one. The science in this case, is essential, but not scary – more about the ideas and scale of it all.

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