Functioning robots are all alike; every malfunctioning robot malfunctions in its own way.
Android Karenina, Lev Tolstoy and Ben H. Winters
Call me old-fashioned, if you’d like: I confess that I’ve always thought of mashup books as gimmicky. I haven’t read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, despite the promise of “ultraviolent zombie mayhem,” nor have I touched Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, though that sounds like a natural for a Mainer because of the giant lobsters.
Is it heresy to rewrite Anna Karenina, adding robots and aliens? I don’t know. What I do know is that Android Karenina is a moderately entertaining book that works because Winters knows Anna Karenina well enough to mash in material that fits the original’s themes and characters. According to this Russian-language interview with critic Lev Danilkin, Winters has read the original AK several times. Winters says one of his goals with the book is to show a classic in a new light. I think that’s where the book succeeds best.
Winters preserves much of the basic plot of AK, making steampunk-inspired adaptations so the book feels simultaneously quaint and futuristic. So what happens when robots enter Anna Karenina’s world? I won’t mention much, lest I reveal too many of the book’s odd surprises but: Class I and II robots have “three-part nomenclature” just like Russian humans and an advanced class (III) of robots serve as “beloved-companions” who (mostly) calm their masters and mistresses. There is some off-earth travel. The discovery of a metal called groznium has changed Russian life. Winters says in this interview with Lisa Binion of BellaOnline that groznium is “made-up as all hell.”
Some of Winters’s inventions are very funny and apt: Karenin, for example, is half man, half machine, with a mechanical oculus (probably my favorite AK detail), and Levin’s beloved-companion is a giant robot called Socrates. Winters made Levin much more tolerable for me, both by shortening the book considerably and giving Kostya a groznium mining operation. So much for that pastoral scything! I admit I was happy to read that Danilkin also thinks Levin was the book’s weak link.
I’m not an avid sci fi reader and Anna Karenina has never been my favorite Tolstoy... but Android Karenina had a steady enough balance of silliness, legacy plot, existentialism, and futuristic novelty to keep me reading. Though I think Android Karenina is plenty of mashup for me for a long time, I give Winters lots of credit for creating a book that I didn’t abandon. I hope Android Karenina will inspire some readers to pick up Anna Karenina.
I’m grateful to Elif Batuman and her “Book Bench” piece on NewYorker.com for relieving me of the duty of listing some of the ways Tolstoy portrayed mechanization way, way back in the nineteenth century.
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