Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Android Karenina by Leo Tolstoy and Ben H. Winters

It's hard to imagine, but the literary mash-up rage only started a little over a year ago with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (and before anyone chimes in, yes, I know that there have been plenty of other mash-ups previous to P&P&Z, but none with the same economic or pop culture effect). Perhaps it's a sign of a thin concept stretched too far, but within one year this burgeoning genre has begun to feel already played out and cliched. I have to admit that I was immediately fascinated by P&P&Z when it was first released, and my curiosity was piqued enough by Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter to purchase it upon release. But Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters? Pardon my yawn. When the best and most notable concept in a book is its cover, you know you're in trouble.

I suppose that's why I've been so surprised by Android Karenina, the latest mash-up from Quirk Books and author Ben H. Winters. I was hardly predisposed to like the book from the get-go, given my past teaching Tolstoy's classic and my own hardly enthusiastic attitude about yet another too clever by half literary mash-up. However, I was pleasantly surprised with the invention Winters employs to remix this classic novel.

Imagine a steampunk Russia in the late 19th century. That's Android Karenina. Fortunately, rather than set this novel in the future, Winters wisely chooses to keep it distinctly in the past, but a radically re-imagined past. All of the familiar characters from the original novel are present - Anna, Count Vronsky, Levin, Oblonsky - but now the world they inhabit is drastically changed. This is a Russia where the discovery of a new metal and energy source, groznium, has transformed every aspect of society. The most striking change is in the field of robotics. Robots are everywhere, divided (as suits Russia of the past) into distinct classes. Class 1 robots are menial, servile creatures beneath almost everyone's notice. Class 2s are a few steps above this, capable of slight speech but still mostly primitive and simple. Class 3s, however, are quite different. The wealthy and powerful all receive a Class 3 when they come of age as adults. These Class 3s are constant companions, trusted confidants and valiant protectors - something like the daemons in Philip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy. They are an extension of the self. Anna's Class 3 is, for example, Android Karenina, a beautiful but strangely silent presence, while Levin's Class 3 is Socrates, a wise oddball of a robot.

This focus on robots, their classes and the Iron Laws (think Asimov's robotics laws) they are programmed to obey enhances and expands the original novel's themes of class distinctions, gender roles and identity. I am happy to say that Winters does not treat Android Karenina as a one note joke, as it easily could have become. Instead, it enriches the original while staying true to the characters. It reads as if it were created by someone with the utmost respect for the original material, and that is a good thing.

So who is this book for? All of the Quirk editions beg this question at one level or another. Is Android Karenina for the long-time devotee to the original? As someone who has read the original book several, several times, I can honestly say it was fun seeing what changes Winters brought to the mix - robotics in one moment, space travel in the next. Could this appeal to someone who has never read Anna Karenina? Probably, and it could possibly get some males to read it who would otherwise avoid it altogether. Before you think it, yes, I realize that reading this is not the same as reading the original, but it might be a good bridge into other classic Russian lit.

Either way, Android Karenina represents a genre-bending leap forward for the literary remix. Whether it's the pinnacle of a declining empire remains to be seen.


tanita davis said...

OH!!! You're KIDDING ME! Quirk Books is too much!

I didn't really feel the love for Anna Karenina, so...

No, no. This is still the end of civilization as we know it. Mash-ups. The END, I say.

tanita davis said...

Okay, I have to read it.

Sarah Rettger said...

Give it a try, Tanita! I wouldn't go near all the other mash-ups, and would never have picked up Android Karenina if my boss hadn't handed it to me - but it's actually a fun read.

I'm not claiming it's any kind of brilliant, but I don't regret the time I've put into it.

gonovice said...

But if you want brilliant, then read Tolstoy's original. And let me recommend the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Their translations are getting great reviews. I read the one they did of The Brothers Karamazov - wonderful!

Tolstoy was my favorite novelist until I read James Joyce. I've read War and Peace twice, and need to reread Anna Karenina, no question.