BLOG Gwen Davies

NWR Issue 95

Konstantin by Tom Bullough, Lunar travel, Four dimensions

The first pictures of Mars disappointed scientists, according to Mars, A Horizon Guide, repeated early this month. The similarity of its cratered surface to that of the moon indicated an unchanged landscape and the improbability that life forces recently existed on either celestial body. Horizon’s portrayal of faith in science and imperialist mission chimes with Tom Bullough’s new novel, Konstantin. Set in late nineteenth-century Russia, Konstantin depicts the early years of actual scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the first man to reveal the possibility of space travel.

Whether you share Tsiolkovsky’s obsession with flight, time and distance, you will agree that Tom Bullough succeeds in translating the science of lunar travel into concrete, apposite and lyrical imagery in a properly imagined landscape and era.

The novel is top heavy in terms of space devoted to the childhood years. But Kostya’s young voice is distinctive, the boy’s partial deafness given a commendably unsensational treatment. We feel how this disability brings him particularly close to his mother. While Kostya does have fun with friends and family – marvellous set pieces involving central Russian escapades such as coming nose to nose with a wolf, river-iceberg hopping and church-roof scaling – his deafness also lets him inhabit the solitary space in which ideas and calculations take flight.

The mother-son relationship is disrupted, and no alternative dramatic core provided to absorb our hunger for empathy. This is when the story’s axis slips a little. It becomes more picaresque as Kostya-Konstantin’s travels (via sledge, rail, barge, skate, tram and horse-drawn carriage) range further to encompass Moscow, the scene of his first encounter with a whore as well as real-life Nikolai Fedorovich, a philosopher of extending life by technological means, including cosmic conquest.

This is a book about abstractions whose strengths are its material settings. So fittingly, its physical format is gorgeous. Wide margins inside; outside, folding endpapers adorned with gilt without, and within, three-coloured diagrams from the scientist’s notebooks which assert the magnitude of the sun in relation to human stick-figures.

The harsh winter of Konstantin’s opening showcases the seasons at the outset, but this is no romantic trope. Through the attention paid to weather, light and shade (for example a cathedral at dawn ‘materializ[ing] within its constellation’), we are treated to the sensation of our tilting planet and how that affects those scraping a living. Here is a writer with a sculptor’s sensibility, conjuring planes, shapes and trajectories in three dimensions.

Einstein’s fourth dimension came in the new century: around the corner from Tsiolkovsky’s discoveries. Konstantin is not to lunar travel what Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials is to quantum physics. But it’s one small step on an interesting path; one I’m sure Bullough will complete well before Beagle 3 turns its snout Mars-wards.

A version of this was first published in Gwen's Western Mail Insider column on Saturday 21 April 2012.


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