Cassie-la's Reviews > Android Karenina

Android Karenina by Ben H. Winters
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's review
Jun 14, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: 2011-reads


Until this week, I had not read Anna Karenina since an AP English class my senior year of high school. I remembered four things about this classic. 1. The book was recommended by Oprah which made me immediately not want to read it, 2. Tolstoy is Russian, 3. Anna kills herself and the book still insists on continuing for another 20 pages, and 4. I hated it with every fiber of my being.

Thankfully, due to the wonderful literary innovation of the mash-up implemented by Quirk Classics in 2o09, I can re-read this classic in a much more satisfying and enjoyable way. And no matter how much classical purists dislike this new genre, one cannot deny that the main theme and thrust of the novel is never derailed, merely added upon and seasoned for the enjoyment of the masses.

The novel takes place in an alternate version of 19th century Russia, after the discovery of a mysterious alloy known as groznium, which allows technology to excel. Robots pervade everything, with Class I robots doing simple tasks such as brewing tea and Class II robots providing intermediate tasks such as raising children or driving carriages. The citizenry is in fear of a group called UnConSciya (Union of Concerned Scientists) who are blamed for attacking citizens with mechanical insect creatures referred to as koschei. Basically, there a lot of things that click, tick, have gears, and also a good number of things that explode.

It is also a world in which every citizen is allowed a Class III robot companion on their 18th birthday, who becomes their most beloved and understanding friend. These robots serve as an alternative to a lot of the inner-dialogue present in Tolstoy, and also replace the various servants that appear throughout the original.

Each Class III is personalised for the human they serve, filling a need that human requires while at the same time representing their character. Basically, Class III’s are big clunky, non shape-shifting daemons. These companions have the ability to replay memories of their masters, and receive and send messages known as communiqués, much like video chat or email but viewed on robot stomachs. Much like the Three Laws of Robotics in the stories of Isaac Asimov, the robots in this novel are held in check by the Iron Laws, which prevent them from damaging themselves and force them to obey human demands placed upon them. The most lovable Class III is Levin’s robot Socrates, who constantly provides helpful advice to his worrisome master. A slight second is the ridiculous sounding Tatiana, Kitty’s companion who is both pink AND a ballerina.

Unlike the original novel, which deals with social change and the transition into a technological world, Winters pokes fun at a removal from the modern world, and his version of Russia becomes less technologically advanced. At one point, Vronsky jokingly comments that Karenin plans to, “… Drain every vestige of technology from the nation… Russia will end up as some sort of vast agrarian monarchy, complete with horse races and peasants threshing wheat”. This comment is particularly amusing considering that Vronsky himself participated in horse races (in Tolstoy’s version) on a steed named Frou-Frou (the name of his battle suit in Winters’ version) and Levin was a farmer rather than a groznium miner.

Russia steps back when Karenin (under control from the robotic portion of his face, think Terminator) removes ALL robots from society and has plans to convert the Grav (fancy version of a train which is perpetually on time) into something much less modern. As he tells Anna’s brother Stiva, “Do not fear… The people of Russia will still be able to travel; they will travel, however, on a simple mechanical apparatus… The cars will be fired by the steam generated by burning heaps of noxious, dirty coal, and will run on rickety metal wheels along non-charged rails. This transportation machine we shall call a ‘train”. It was at this point that I literally couldn’t control my glee.

My only problem with the novel, which is no fault of Winters, is the source material upon which it is based. Unlike his other novel for Quirk, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, I had no prior love of the original. I think one of the great things about reading the aforementioned mash-up, and Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies were my knowledge of the source material and the ease with which I caught the inside jokes and could pick up on the alteration to the text. This presented a greater challenge in Android Karenina, and I would suggest at least reading the SparkNotes before or after finishing Winters’ novel, in order to catch the little nuances which had me giggling throughout.

This is also the fault that seems to be inherent in the mash-up, that the art imitates the art. Whereas Anna Karenina originally starts off slow and dragging, so too does Android Karenina, focusing on characters and relationships rather than much plot development. It wasn’t until I read the sentence, “Thus were the Scherbatskys blasted into space” that my interest was piqued. Rather than send her on a normal holiday to get over her woes upon losing the affection of Count Vronsky, Kitty is sent into orbit around Venus to convalesce. The novel significantly picks up pace from here, with Anna’s husband Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin being taken over by the metallic portion of his face, Madame Stahl being shot out of an airlock into space for being a practicing xenotheologist (member of a cultist religion that awaits arrival of an alien species to save humanity), and Anna and Vronsky taking refuge on the moon.

However, all this wonderful ridiculousness is merely working its way up to strangest moment in the novel, which arrives in the final 40 pages. I would love to tell you the amazing twist of this ending, but it is really necessary to read the entire story to get the full scope of the finale. At this point in the narrative, robots have been removed from society, aliens are bursting out of people’s bodies and attacking humanity, and Anna realises that UnConSciya have the capacity for time travel. It is from here on out that time shifts back and forth from a new future to an old future, showing the result in both worlds of Anna’ suicide. The whole plot twist BLEW MY MIND. And that’s a pretty difficult thing to do.

Don’t let the original dissuade you, this novel will not have you contemplating throwing yourself in front of a train.

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