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Konstantin Tsiokovsky and Nikolai Fyodorov

Actually, Fyodorov was older and influenced Tsiolkovsky, so let's look at him first:


Nikolai Fyodorov (1828-1903): The introduction to the piece you'll find on Moodle gives you more or less what you need.

Note his illegitimate, mixed-class ancestry - he shared this, by the way, with the famous 19th-century intellectual and émigré publisher Aleksandr Herzen, a hero of Tom Stoppard's recent set of plays The Coast of Utopia. Herzen's father made up the last name (Герцен) from the German "Herz" 'heart' - in case anyone doubted that he was a love-child. Fyodorov had a sadder childhood, booted out along with his mother when his father died, though the family continued to support him and his mother until he could earn his own living. I have to wonder (as do the editors of the translation) how much this past tinged his concentration on "the fathers" and even his project to bring the fathers back from the dead.

Male serf owners, even the great poet Aleksandr Pushkin, often thrust their affections on their female serfs, and some of the resulting children received good educations and moved in society as aristocrats, or joined the growing group of "racnochintsy" (разночинцы) in the intelligentsia (for more information on raznochintsy, see"). Serfdom in Russia was not abolished until the great Emancipation reform in 1861.

I offer no questions for reading Fyodorov, since it's a secondary reading, but please read the intro (pp. 11-15), then pp. 24-5pp. 36-39; the top paragraph on p. 46, and pp. 53-4. Feel free to skim the rest of the piece; you might find something of interest to you (philosophy, religion, Russian history (the famine of 1891), scientific aspirations to climate control...). This piece lacks the final part of Fyodorov's "Common Task": once we resurrect the dead fathers, earth will be crowded, so we'll need to colonize space and settle all the extra people on the stars. (Hence the references to astronomy: p. 24, "The unification of all sciences under astronomy...") Fyodorov doesn't say it here, but you can catch the implication that sexual reproduction won't be necessary once the fathers are all back from the dead. As a nice saintly Russian ascetic he presumes that it's only the atavistic need to reproduce that fuels sexual desire. (He doesn't imply, but it would not be much of a leap to conclude, that if sex and reproduction are out there'll be no need for daughters and wives, just fathers and sons... See my SPECIAL NOTE below.) He doesn't go into the fact that any society with the technology to resurrect all those dead guys will have no trouble with a trivial thing like ensuring the immortality of everyone now alive. (Societies where the residents can assume immortality show up very often in science fiction, with a variety of explanations - most often the triumph of medicine, either the ability to cure every ill or the possibility of regenerating organs or even entire bodies. As we'll see, immortality though physical reconditioning can also take a dystopian turn.)

Fyodorov's technical aspirations (" make the universe gradually better, to control the blind forces of nature which threaten human life...") resonate strongly with Soviet scientific and technical ambitions, likewise his emphasis on collective action and taking on this task all together, though he died in 1903, long before 1917. On the other hand, his writing and emphasis on fathers has a ring of the all-male communities in monasteries on Mount Athos, where some not only permit no women, but no female animals either.

To be honest, I've always thought the guy was loony, which may just reflect my tender age when I first read him. (All the brotherhood stuff, fine - but resurrecting the fathers? How about those molecules that have been inside multiple bodies over time?) He nevertheless exerted a big influence on, and through, Tsiolkovsky; philosopher Vladimir Solovyov and author Fyodor Dostoevsky were admirers too). Let me know if you'd like more info on Fyodorov, or suggestions of more subtle and specialized approaches to his theories than that of your humble professor. It would be fun (in a paper for this course?) to compare Fyodorov's vision of a future society with the all-male homosexual (but not father-resurrecting) society on the planet Athos presented in Lois McMaster Bujold's novel Ethan of Athos (1986).

SPECIAL NOTE: Just for fun, as I read this time, I kept track of Fyodorov's references to sex or women:

  • p. 19, twice uses (pejoratively) the word "effeminate."
  • p. 24, talks briefly abut "the force which compels the two sexes to unite in one flesh as a transition to the being of a third by means of childbearing..."
  • p. 37, refers to both sons and daughters, in a complaint about Young People Today.
  • p. 42, discusses "paleography, the science of ancient and modern forms of writing which bear the imprint of the transition from the old cult of the fathers to the new cult of the wives."
  • p. 43, goes on about paleography, discussing Gothic letters, which "did not, of course, have that womanish beauty which prevails now in the epoch of the cult of woman." He really didn't like the Art Nouveau! (Which, it's true, made shockingly frequent use of women, clothed or not, as decorative elements in printing - see especially the Saint Petersburg journal Mir iskusstva, which started up around the time of Fyodorov's death.)
  • p. 52, briefly mentions marriage.

And that's it, over 38 pages: I didn't count the number of mentions of Fathers, Sons, and Men, but this is clearly a male and masculine project. Some readers might charitably explain it as a unisex project - and both of those tendencies do show up later in Soviet SF. 

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 there he met the influential philosopher (and librarian) Nikolai Fyodorov. 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 (NB: Orthodox clergy can marry and have children); 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 theories of space travel and rocket propulsion. He is now generally considered the father of manned space flight. He adhered to Fyodorov's philosophy, which is more concerned with colonization of other planets than "On the Moon" is.

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 in 1924, inspired largely by Tsiolkovsky's work. See Asif Siddiqi's The Red Rockets' Glare for more information on this.) In the 1930s Tsiolkovsky 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 there is still a museum. The fundamental equation for rocket propulsion is named for Tsiolkovsky, and a few objects in space (a crater on the Moon's far side, an asteroid) were named for him or his family; you'll catch references to him here and there in science fiction stories and TV series. You can find a lot more in the articles about him online, which often reproduce drawings from his theoretical publications.

(I feel that the Russian term for a human being engaged in space flight, cosmonaut (from the Greek cosmos and -naut ), 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

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" picture 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?


Sibelan Forrester

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