May 24, 12
Read in June, 2010
Android Karenina by Ben Winters is a Steampunk take on Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel and in deed, the plot resembles the original to a great degree and all original protagonists are present. They are incarnated in a way befitting a Steampunk setting. Android Karenina is set against a high-tech Steampunk background, placed in a pseudo 19th century Russia.
What first struck me was the easiness with which the human protagonists interact with their robotic alter-egos/side-kicks, the Class III companions. These robots have been around quite a while by the time the events of the novel unfold and have helped create a unique society.
The society of Android Karenina’s Russia, and in deed the whole country, could have been taken from a Belle Epoque vision of the year 2000: Fashion and society has not changed, only technology has advanced and provides novel ways of travel, new methods to treat illnesses and new forms of entertainment. The three-dimensional dance early in the novel and the grav-skating are just two particularly delightful examples of this.
The first part of the novel takes the reader into a very intricate and detailed vision of a Belle Epoque utopia, brought about by the discovery of the mystery and almost magical metal Groznium, which has transformed society “since the days of the Czars” and brought amazing advances.
The Class III companions are the most visible part of these advancements. The Class IIIs are sentient machines, extensions and complementaries of their owners personality. They are also part of Coming-of-Age. Children do not have Class III companions. The gift of a Class III marks the entry into adult life.
But despite all this technology, society has changed little. For the most part it resembles the highly stratified society of late-czarist Russia. All protagonists are also part of the upper echelons of society, common people are absent. Their absence is so drastic, I at times wondered if they had not been completely replaced by Class II (menial work) robots. This fear was elevated later in the novel, though. Interestingly, the automatons seem to have a standing covering the entire spectrum from slaves to trusted friends. Levin, Stiva and Anna Karenina treat their companions with respect, while other members of High Society delight in cruel games involving their mechanical servants, very much like serfs used to be treated in czarist Russia, depending on their lord.
In the first part of Android Karenina, we are also introduced to all the main characters and their various companions. This introduction is quite lengthy. As a result, Android Karenina has a rather slow start. Still, the high-tech vision of an extended 19th century depicted in the novel is quite enthralling.
As the Ben Winter’s tale progresses and the reader learns more about the world, the utopia becomes tarnished. There is an underground movement of scientists using strange and advanced technologies to create emotion-bombs and god-mouths (I think they are miniature black holes of some sort) to wreak havoc.
There is also the shadow of an alien presence, the Honored Guests, which is cast over some occultist fringes of Moscow’s high society. There is even a religion based around these aliens, but the government acts rather harshly against it.
Another quite fascinating but rather disturbing feature is the almost complete absence of other parts of the world.
Count Vronsky and Anna Karenina sometimes converse in French and Count Vronsky’s mecanicien
is an Englishman. At some later point, Vronsky accompanies a “foreign prince” and shows him around Russia, but that is it. The rest of the world only exists in the margins. Even during part two of the novel “Voyage of the Shcherbatskys”, in which the reader is taken along the Shcherbatskys voyage into space, we only meet Russians. I was left with the impression that Android Karenina’s Russia was not quite a real place, even in the context of the novel. Rather, it seems to exist in some other, dreamlike state, all on its own. This isolation becomes even more apparent in the last part, when the people of Russia are faced with a dire threat that sure would have caused the neighbouring countries to intervene on Russia’s side.
Without wanting to spoil anything, the plot of Android Karenina offers quite a few interesting twists. This is one of the most enjoyable factors of the novel, but also one of its flaws. At first, I was surprised and delighted, when a surprising new element was added, but there are too many of these. The plot contains elements of I, Robot, Terminator, Aliens and The War of the Worlds. You can also argue that one scene is reminiscent of Starship Troopers. Leaving out some of these elements would not have hurt the plot and would have prevented it becoming somewhat overburdened towards the end. The second (and final) element I found irritating are the lengthy descriptions of everyday events and looks inside the minds and musings of the protagonists. It made me skip pages on a few occasions and thus I missed an important bit, just half a page in length, which is actually the key scene of the novel. Without said lengths, Android Karenina would have been more enjoyable.
Those two are my only points of criticism, though. I found Android Karenina to be a thoroughly entertaining, enthralling and inspiering novel. I especially enjoyed the Russian flavour to Steampunk, something I had not encountered before.
Sadly, I cannot completely credit Mr. Winters for the creation of the very believable characters, since they were closely based on Tolstoy’s work. His creation of the Class III companions, especially Lupo and Little Stiva (whose passing I mourned) deserve all the credit that is due.
On a final note, Android Karenina does something I have not encountered before: The book, not just the novel, breaches the fourth barrier. There are elements in the book, little details, that presume the book is printed in a world were the events of Android Karenina are as likely as the events of Anna Karenina are in our world. All I can say is: Special thanks to II/ENGLISHRENDERER/94!
In conclusion, Android Karenina is an engaging and at times heavy read with unnecessary lengthy stretches and a few too many elements in the plot. It is also a beautiful, harrowing and sad tale of a technological Utopia descending slowly into a strange form of Orwellian Steampunk Stalinism. It is rich in detail and creates a very unique and even by Steampunk standards strange and dreamlike world within its pages that strives to reach out towards the reader.