Reviewed by Mr. Dark
Written by Leo Tolstoy and Ben Winters
Published by Quirk Classics
Quirk Classics has become the go-to shop for the relatively new genre of literary mash-ups. First we had Austen and zombies, then Austen and sea monsters. Now, we have Tolstoy and robots.
Android Karenina is Ben Winters’ second mash-up for Quirk, the first being Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. It’s a very, very ambitious attempt to push the mash-up genre into new heights of literary excellence. More importantly for Quirk, it’s a step away from the humor that infused the Austen zombie novels. This is a dark, serious, hard sci-fi book with very little time for humor. Is it successful? Somewhat, and not nearly enough.
Tolstoy’s classic novel of love and infidelity among Russian aristocrats during a time of social upheaval is widely regarded by literature nerds as one of the greatest novels in history. As for me? Never read it. I’ll be right upfront there. However, I’ve done my homework, and I’m familiar enough with the original to compare and contrast for those who are more familiar with it than I am.
Here, the primary additive to the mash-up is a substance known as groznium. This imaginary ore has allowed mankind to achieve technological greatness far earlier than they have in the real world. Groznium is the steam in this steampunk novel, putting it simply.
I need to explain a little of Winters’ world before I continue. Robots in Winters’ version of 19th century Russia come in three classes. Class I bots are really glorified appliances. Coffee makers, hair driers, kitchenware, etc. Class II robots perform human-like jobs, usually the kind servants would handle, such as maids, cooks, doormen, and nannies. They lack advanced thinking and personalities despite their ability to replace human labor.
Class III robots are the pivotal tech in the book. Each member of the aristocracy is given his or her own companion Class III when he/she “comes out” to society upon coming of age (18). The Class III reflects the individual and is a life-long companion, collecting memories to be played back at will, giving advice, or even playing military roles if its human master is a soldier. The original novel’s title character, Anna Karenina, has her silent, colorful companion, Android Karenina. Her lover, Count Vronsky, has a wolf-shaped bot named Lupo, as befits his military role.
These Class III robots follow their masters on a tale that hits all the major plot points of the original. Anna, in a loveless marriage to a bureaucrat, meets Vronsky and begins an ill-fated affair. Meanwhile a man named Levin courts Kitty, the young daughter of a princess that Vronsky has spurned. Society’s acceptance (or lack thereof) of Anna and Vronsky’s relationship and her husband’s refusal to grant a divorce lead to disaster, while Levin and Kitty’s marriage and return to less aristocratic roles leads to a strong family unit.
Tolstoy used the juxtaposition of these two couples and their fates to reflect on the role of women in Russian society, the benefits of farming over typical aristocratic functions, and the place of peasantry in the Russian nation. Winters attempts to take us down similar roads with his own views on Socialism and Totalitarianism in Russia as a steampunk version of the Soviet Empire rises as well as making statements on our reliance on technology.
That’s where the problems arise. In order to tell the tale Winters has planned and at the same time insert his sociopolitical commentary, he has to excise or alter quite a bit of the original text. Karenin, Anna’s bureaucrat husband, becomes a murderous dictator. The plight of peasants becomes the plight of the Class III’s and their humanity, or lack thereof. Simple accidents in the original text become terrorist attacks by a group of scientists bent on bringing down the technological controls of the government. Such heady subjects as time travel, alien invasion, and biotechnology are heavy influencers on the plot.
Simply put, a rather heavy, melodramatic romance novel becomes a very dark, very hard sci-fi novel that also happens to talk a lot about the love lives of rich Russians. This switch in tone is just too dramatic to support the original text. Events that have to occur to keep the original overall plot don’t really match with the new text added. For example, Karenin refusing to grant a divorce because of poor advice from a bogus psychic is a far cry from not only refusing a divorce but swearing he will murder the couple, destroying them completely. When this happens, the reaction of “Hmm…perhaps we should just travel for a bit then, get out of town to let him think for a bit” is absurd. In the original giving him more time to change his mind makes sense. Here, the correct response would be “Oh crap, we need to go into hiding NOW!”
This kind of event happens again and again. We have a novel where not a whole lot happens converted to a novel where dramatic, world-changing events occur. (Perhaps even world-ending events.) I’m afraid Winters just wasn’t up to the challenge, and his attempts to conform Tolstoy’s plot to his own plans consistently miss their targets.
One thing that did bother me outright, however, was the choice of endings. Yes, endings. The book literally ends with the way things would have happened if an event occurred and another version where that event did not occur. I am absolutely clueless as to why. It makes no sense within the plot or within the plot device that leads to this event I’m referring to and generally feels like an inability to find an ending and stick to it. If Winters has an explanation for this choice, I’d be interested to hear it.
This review sounds like I hated the book. I did not. Winters has the seeds of an excellent hard sci-fi steampunk novel here. A great one. I wish he would have ditched Tolstoy, even if it meant finding another publisher, and just written his tale of floating waltzes, giant alien worms roaming the countryside, combat with rudimentary mechs, and of course the very interesting and very ingenious world of Class I, II, and III robots. I’d have absolutely adored that tale. It just doesn’t mate well with the Tolstoy, and as someone who wasn’t familiar with the original, I was at a loss as to why these people were doing what they were doing, reacting how they reacted, and saying the things they said. Only after dedicating a bit of time to study up on the original was I able to work it out. That’s just not okay in a mash-up like this, and I did not have this issue with the Austen titles.
I absolutely do NOT recommend this to readers who are not intimately familiar with the original Tolstoy. You will be frustrated, annoyed, and generally confused for much of the title. Consider this a zero-knife review if you don’t know the original or aren’t willing to spend quite a bit of time with some SparkNotes and Wikipedia on the Tolstoy. However, if you are a fan of steampunk or hard science fiction and previously read the Tolstoy in school or otherwise, you very well may get a kick out of Android Karenina. You’ll be able to link up the connections that Winters misses, repairing the flow that is so often disjointed and puzzling to those who don’t know where the original plot was headed when Winters diverted it. As always with these mash-ups, you’ll also be savvy to the many in-jokes and references included for those who are familiar with the original.
I’d like to see some original science fiction from Winters. I don’t know that I’d like to see more mash-ups as ambitious as Android Karenina from him. This novel also proves that you do need more than a clever idea for a mash-up to make an entertaining book that’s accessible to most readers.
2 1/2 out of 5
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