Android Karenina By Leo Tolstoy & Ben H. Winters Paperback Edition
Release date: June 8, 2010
This review of Android Karenina is part of the Quirk Classics Blogsplosion event, where you can enter for a chance to win one of 25 Quirk Books prize-packs. Visit Quirk Classics to enter and be sure to tell them that Geeks of Doom sent you!
Literary monster mash-ups are all the rage these days with most of the fun not only happening in England, but in the 19th century fictional world of Jane Austen thanks to titles like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. With the success of these books, it’s no wonder that historical and popular fictional characters are getting in on the action with Queen Victoria hunting demons (Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter), the young ladies of Little Women facing werewolves (Little Women and Werewolves), and even President Abraham Lincoln is out there stalking vampires (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter).
There’s no doubt vampires, werewolves, and other creatures of the night will be invading, stalking, and menacing Regency England many more times in the future, but if you want a little variety in your literary mash-ups, then look no further than Android Karenina, the newest selection in the Quirk Classics library.
In Android Karenina, author Ben H. Winters takes Leo Tolstoy‘s classic Anna Karenina, set in 19th century Russia, and converts it into a futuristic science fiction tale with robots, mechanical terrorists, and space travel, all made possible by the discovery of the “Miracle Metal” groznium.
Did you catch that? Robots… all types of robots from manservants to laborers to mechanical animals to massive attack cyborgs controlled by an anti-government terrorist organization known as UnConSciya (Union of Concerned Scientists).
The inclusion of robots and advanced technology into this setting seems an ironic choice, considering that at the time of Anna Karenina‘s publication in the 1870s, Russia was behind its European neighbors in modernatization and what changes were being made were sometimes met with resistance by its citizens. (Tolstoy himself was very critical of modernization.)
Winters makes it work, though, faithfully following the original’s emotional tale of two upper-class couples who we see in Android Karenina have more to worry about in this society than affairs of the heart and social standing. As with the original, the married Anna Karenina begins an adulterous affair with the handsome young military man Count Alexei Vronsky, and landowner Nikolai Levin falls in love with the young socialite Kitty Shcherbatskaya while going through a period of self-reflection.
Anna is terribly unhappy in her marriage to Alexei Karenin, whose face is half-covered by a mechanical device, but her affair with Vronsky brings about more woe than she could imagine. As if being torn between giving up her lover or damaging her standing in society weren’t enough, Anna is constantly the target of deadly attacks by the UnConSciya, which use koschei, godmouths, and emotion bombs against her and other citizens.
Luckily for Anna, she has Android Karenina, her faithful Class III robot, who soothes her when she’s upset and bathes her in complementary lighting when they go out for social functions, like to floating balls. Like Anna, all upper-class citizens have these types of robots who are programmed to meet the needs of their master. Losing one’s Class III is like losing a loved one, or worst, like losing a part of one’s self.
These robots are highly advanced and can even feel pain, as evidenced when a party hostess decides to use a decommissioned robot (a robot that no longer has a master) for sport to see which of the Iron Laws it will obey when given conflicting commands. If you’re familiar with Isaac Asimov’s laws of robotics, you’ll know exactly what the Iron Laws are: Robots cannot harm humans; they must obey humans; and they must practice self-preservation. But what would a 500-plus-page story about badass robots be if the robots didn’t go a little crazy? As you’ll find out, there are some people who want the androids to be liberated and some of these robots, well, they’d like to take it a step further by assuming control.
Though the everyday lives of the people of this steampunk version of 19th century Russian are made easier by technological advances which are still out of reach for us in the 21st century — like interstellar space travel just for some rest and relaxation — living in the Age of Groznium comes with a steep price. Aside from frequent terrorist attacks, there’s the all-knowing watchful eye of the government. “The Tower, she keeps her loving eye upon us” is the motto of the massive eye atop the Moscow Tower (not unlike Sauron’s Eye in The Lord of the Rings), and it’s this all-seeing eye that helps decide whether a citizen is a patriot or a ‘Janus’ (a traitor). There is no trial, no judge or jury, just swift sentencing and execution on the spot. This also goes for the Class III robots, which are immediately destroyed if it’s believed they’ve been infected with an insurrectionary virus, even if there’s no sufficient evidence to prove it.
Android Karenina is a bit slow going at first, as a lot of details about this alternate version of 19th century Russian society are presented at the beginning, so it might be overwhelming. As with the original novel, the characters have three and sometimes four names, which can be difficult to keep track of — a guide in the front of the book helps with this, but in Android Karenina, the robots all have multiple names as well. The book definitely gets better and more engrossing as it goes along, so stick with it. Though I enjoyed the original Anna Karenina and was interested in the personal lives of the characters, I found that in Android Karenina, I liked it better when Anna, Vronsky, Kitty, and Levin weren’t the main focus of a particular passage unless they were being attacked (though, I did find Levin much more tolerable here than the other main characters). I found myself much more interested in the UnConSciya, as well as the plight of the Class III robots than I was in the humans, but that was probably Winters’ intention.
While Android Karenina is at its heart a far-fetched take on a literary classic, it can definitely stand on its own as a great science fiction story.
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