Flight of the imagination: lift-off for the novel Konstantin

The inspiration for Tom Bullough’s latest novel, Konstantin, ignited back in 2000. Here he charts how a bottle of vodka and a Russian schoolteacher helped his imagination take flight

A Vostok rocket at the Russian Exhibition of Economic Achievement in 1967 It was in February 2000 that I saw a vodka bottle in the shape of a Vostok rocket in the duty free at St. Petersburg airport and found myself suddenly convinced that I had a novel to write about Russia and space

Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky Two days later, I learnt about Konstantin Tsiolkovsky: the deaf, provincial Russian school teacher who first showed that it was possible for man to ‘break the shackles’ of the earth

Re-entering the atmosphere – a sketch from Tsiolkovsky’s notebooks Even during the earliest drafts of Konstantin, almost 10 years ago, I was fascinated by Tsiolkovsky’s conviction that it was man’s purpose to replace ‘the natural by what is artificial’ – both literally and metaphorically, to rise above the natural world

The forest near Vyatka by Ivan Shishkin Tsiolkovsky was born in 1857 into a country little changed since the middle ages. The wolf-infested forest, where Konstantin begins, was still a reality for Russians of the 19th century. In the forest, with the extremity of the winters, with the precariousness of the short farming year, nature remained the great adversary

Tsiolkovsky’s 1883 spacecraft And yet, the railway and the telegraph were on the advance. For me at least, it is the collision of technology with a near-medieval culture that makes nineteenth-century Russia so compelling to write about, and Tsiolkovsky – scientist and mystical philosopher, inventor of reaction-propelled, gyroscope-orientated spacecraft as early as 1883 – is that collision embodied

A rocket design from 1914 In 1903, Tsiolkovsky published his paper, ‘The Investigation of World Spaces by Reactive Vehicles’, which describes a viable space rocket – fuelled by liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. For Tsiolkovsky it was a first step towards his dream of a cosmic future in which, ultimately, mankind would colonise the entire universe

Leonov floats above the earth And ultimately, at the end of its long development, Konstantin is less about space than the dream of space – that is, man’s compulsion to transcend his limits, and all the wonder and the hubris that goes with it

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