Friday, June 25, 2010

Something Light: Anna Karenina Meets the Robots

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.

But then came Android Karenina, a collaborative effort of Lev Tolstoy and Ben Winters. How could I miss that?

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 for relieving me of the duty of listing some of the ways Tolstoy portrayed mechanization way, way back in the nineteenth century.

An even bigger thank you to Quirk Books for giving me a review copy of Android Karenina at Book Expo America. Quirk tells me that Russian publisher AST purchased Russian rights to the book.

Android Karenina on Amazon

(The very small print: As an Amazon affiliate, I receive a small commission when readers click on my Amazon links and make purchases. Thank you! A very special thanks to the kind reader who recently made a large purchase after clicking.)


  1. I usually shy away from this sort of book (thank you for telling me they are called mashups!) as usually they seem like an amusing idea for the first page, then quickly the joke gets old...

    I'm a huge fan of Tolstoy and adore Anna Karenina even with all its flaws (and how it's a glimpse into Tolstoy's messed up ideas of women and 'ideal wives'). But your review makes this book seem as if it has something... I don't know, something about using someone else's text to create and sell a "new" work still puts me off...

  2. Cat, thank you for your comment. I completely understand and share your unease about mashups. I think I've read enough for a long, long time! I doubt I would have read one at all if a Russian book hadn't turned up.

    Android Karenina was just interesting enough to finish. I thought much of the humor did get stale -- at 500+ pages, this is a fairly long book, even with pictures. I also thought adding aliens and androids was a bit much.

    The brightest spots are the aspects of the book that are closest linked to the original: the tension between people and machines, and seeing how Winters reflects the characters' personalities through their robots.

    I suppose the book's ideal reader is someone who actively likes three things: mashups, the original Anna Karenina, and science fiction with gadgets. For better or worse, none are favorites of mine!