Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935)


Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky was born in 1857 in Izhevskoye, in the Ryazan' province. His father, Eduard Tsiolkovsky (Ciołkowski) was a Pole who’d been deported to Russia for political reasons; his mother, Mariia Yumasheva, was Russian; there were lots of children. Tsiolkovsky lost most of his hearing after a childhood illness; no school would admit a nearly-deaf student, so he was self-taught. In his late teens he spent a few years in Moscow, reading and studying in the city’s excellent libraries, and met the influential philosopher (and librarian) Nikolai Fedorov. He was also inspired by Jules Verne’s adventure novels, and (as he wrote) by the urge to prove his own superior abilities despite his handicap. He married a priest’s daughter (Orthodox clergy can marry); they had seven children. Tsiolkovsky taught high school math until he retired in 1920 (at 63). At the same time, he wrote a great deal, pioneering the theory of space travel and rocket propulsion. He is now generally considered the father of manned space flight. He was adhered to Fedorov’s philosophy, some of which we’ll read a propos of Bogdanov’s Red Star (it’s more concerned with colonization of other planets than “On the Moon”).

Tsiolkovsky theorized about heavier-than-air flying machines, liquid-fueled rockets, and the technology needed for humans to fly in space(sealed capsules, airlocks), though he never built rockets himself. He was elected a member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences in 1919. His early work was rediscovered and republished in the 1920s, as German and American scientists published similar calculations. (A Society for Studies of Interplanetary Travel was founded in the Soviet Union 1924, inspired largely by Tsiolkovsky’s work.) In the 1930s he was recognized and honored, as the government strove to emphasize local inventors and creators in every field. He died in 1935 and had an elaborate state funeral in the city of Kaluga; his house is still a museum there. The fundamental equation for rocket propulsion is named for Tsiolkovsky; a few objects in space (a crater on the Moon’s far side, an asteroid) were named for him or his family, and you’ll catch references to him here and there in science fiction writing and TV series. You can more, in the articles about him online, which often reproduce drawings from his theoretical publications.

(Note that the Russian term for a human being engaged in space flight, cosmonaut (from the Greek cosmos and –naut – shades of Jason and the argonauts), is even more appropriate than the usual term in English, astronaut, since the people are moving through space, not through stars – except in the figurative sense. It’s telling that each side in the Cold War space race felt it had to have its own distinctive term.)

We're reading “On the Moon: A Fantastic Tale” — translated just for you by Sibelan Forrester. See http://www.swarthmore.edu/Humanities/sforres1/translations/Tsiolkovsky.html

About the story:

“On the Moon” was written in 1893, when Tsiolovsky was 36 years old. The subtitle is Tsiolkovsky’s — gesturing towards the eventual term “nauchnaya fantastika”? I used a 1984 publication (Moscow: “Детская литература”) for the translation. That edition is aimed at schoolchildren: simply bound, with black and white illustrations, and the 32-page story is followed by 67 pages discussing the man and his science, with photographs of the moon, etc. The informal photograph in the book makes Tsiolkovsky much more likable than the stiff “official” on many web sites. Tsiolkovsky, bless his heart, was not a super-gifted literary stylist, at least not in 1893; I’ve modernized the style somewhat, but also tried to leave something of the period flavor, including a certain formality in his diction and the gee-whiz excitement or pathos he brings in here and there.

The narrator in “On the Moon” enjoys confusing things by calling the Earth the Moon, as the characters refer to it from the Moon. I’ve left this in the translation: be aware that it’s not a bug, but a feature.

Questions for reading:

  1. How does the title, which we read as we begin, influence our reading of the first couple of pages, when the characters know less about where they are than we do?
  2. How plausible is the physicist as a character? — a kind of raisonneur who feeds us a lot of science on the pretext of enlightening or correcting his roommate.
  3. After all the scientific explanations, how much does it damage the story that our characters can breathe and hear each other in the lunar vacuum, rather than (in a more realistic way) exploding disgustingly the moment they appear on the Moon?
  4. Trace the story’s didactic or educative moments, remembering that the author was a high school math teacher. How much of this can a reader swallow — or rather, what kind of reader would appreciate this balance of information and action?
  5. Special assignment for those of you in Physics and Astronomy: how good is the science (aside from the characters’ breathing, the peculiar preservation of the trees outside the house, etc.)?
  6. How is Earth described?
  7. Would you get this excited by the idea of seeing the Sun rise in the west?
  8. To continue question 4 above: What could be the motivations of a math teacher and (superb) amateur scientist in writing a story like this? What does he want from his reader? How does he imagine his reader — who does he think is reading?
  9. At the story’s end, Tsiolkovsky pulls the disappointing trick (“the oldest trick in the book”) of saying it was all a dream. How does this deus ex machina (or more precisely, Morpheus ex machina) impact your reading experience?
  10. If we do accept that “it was only a dream,” however, how much of the story’s action (the characters’ huge leaps, the sharp shifts in temperature of the lunar environment) might reflect the experiences of someone suffering a sudden, serious illness?
  11. What’s the moral or message of this story, if any? — besides that physicists make the best roommates?

Return to the syllabus for Russian and East European Science Fiction.