It seems appropriate that Konstantin comes with an endorsement from John Banville, author of Doctor Copernicus (1976), which fictionalizes the trials and tribulations of another forefather of astrophysics as we know it today. Yet where Nicholas Copernicus battles against the technological and religious constraints of the sixteenth century to forward his heliocentric theory of the solar system and even had his own doubts about the power of the scientific method, our protagonist here, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, active three centuries later, takes a far less subservient, far more imperial outlook on the stars and our access to them; they are there to be colonized, as ‘the greater man’s progress, the more he replaces the natural by what is artificial’.
Konstantin (little ‘Kostya’ in the first part) an earnest dreamer, made partially deaf by a bout of scarlet fever, travels from his desolately white home of Ryazan to Vyatka, where his father seeks work, and finally to Moscow in search of the academic fulfillment he denied himself by thinking too laterally at school. As a boy he is dragged on a pilgrimage to the icon of St Nikolai in the hope of curing his ailment by his pious mother, a loving but foolhardy woman whose passing away closes the first chapter and signifies a shift from religious notions to a secular and scientific worldview. We are reminded of the ‘Siberian wind’ that pervades the landscape: a landscape that is perilous and infinite-seeming, but into which we have an instinctual intrigue to step further—much like space itself. Kostya uses his mechanical inclination to fashion an ‘ear trumpet’ to better his hearing, and from this point turns his gaze solely toward the stars.
In Moscow he befriends the eccentric, philanthropic librarian Nikolai Federov and is quickly engulfed in the work of Jules Verne, notions of the earth’s centrifugal force and what Federov sees as man’s need to rise above his pornocratic urges and fulfill his ‘sacred duty’. He is given a winter jacket by the librarian in a touching scene which alludes gently to another (very famous) Nikolai’s overcoat.
The book’s greatest achievement is its symbolic contextualising in the last chapter, of what, despite moving characterisation, has until this point only been theory. The narrative leaps forward to March 1965 and the mission for man’s first spacewalk by cosmonauts Leonov and Belyayev. During their tumultuous landing back on Russian soil, we are faced with the recurring menace of a wolf, one that appeared during Kostya’s incapacitation in the first part—a masterly signifier of the very nature that is inherently destructive and stands to hinder our very ascension from the Earth. What prevails, though, in this refreshingly sincere book is an infectious state of wonder, one that celebrates life, and not only space travel, as ‘miraculous, endlessly inventive’.