by Leo Tolstoy & Ben H. Winters
Android Karenina is Quirk Classic’s first non-Austen entry into their monster mashup mayhem line of books. Author Ben H. Winters previously co-wrote Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters for Quirk, so I was very curious to see how he’d tackle his ambitious new project. I mean, Anna Karenina is an amazing novel, but it is very long and at times drowning in its meticulous recording of the banal.
So in this steampunked revision, everything in Russia has become mechanized. Gone are the brutal old days in which humans worked the fields and filled the role of household servant; now, a series of robots complete these tasks. Each member of Russian society has a Class III robot, affectionately referred to as a beloved-companion, who acts as friend, counselor, servant, and scribe. Anna Karenina and her mysterious companion, Android Karenina, drift through this marvelous world in a sea of dissatisfaction. She’s unhappy with her marriage to the mysterious Karenin, a sinister government official more machine than man, although she delights in their son Seryozha. When the dashing, handsome Count Vronsky sweeps boldly into her life, she throws herself into a passionate affair that causes her to lose her place in society and may throw all of Russia into a dangerous, darker age. Her story contrasts sharply with that of Nikolai Levin, a noble who prefers the quiet life of the country, and his stormy relationship with Kitty Shcherbatskaya.
Winters really emphasized the role of technology in his new additions. It goes beyond “Let’s have the men hunt mechanical bears – that’ll be cool!” to more disturbing applications. Humans are so dependent on their mechanical butlers and miners that when the government starts restricting technology and taking away everything powered by groznium – essentially, everything robotic – they can barely function. The disturbing consequences of this dependence can just as easily be applied to our modern lives as this sci-fi Russia.
For anyone who has read the original novel – remember how confusing the Russian names were? I mean, everyone had multiple names, and nicknames, and different classes address each other by different titles? Prince Stepan Arkadyevitch Oblonsky could be referred to as The Prince, Oblonsky, Stiva (his nickname), Stepan Arkadyevitch, Stiva Oblonsky, etc. etc. etc. You had to really pay attention sometimes! Well, the robot names tended to be just as clunky and long. The lower-functioning robots were usually classified along the lines of II/Excavator/8 and II/Coachman/47-T, while the Class III companions usually had proper names.
Much of the original novel was cut, including most religious references and Levin’s quest for a better spiritual life. But even trimmed down, Android Karenina is a hefty 538 pages, and by the middle of the book you’re feeling every single one of them. Replacing exceptionally detailed paragraphs about 19th century Russian life with equally detailed descriptions of robots and pseudo-science doesn’t help speed the novel up. It drags, even as the plot builds up to the epic climax – and then I thought the novel fell apart because there are two separate endings. I think it would have been much better if the author had picked his ending and just stuck to it, instead of providing an alternative, back-up conclusion.
On the plus side, Eugene Smith’s illustrations are hilarious and I’m so glad Quirk included them.
So how to rate the novel? I’m very mixed about it. I do think that Ben H. Winters did a fair job of matching the tone and style of Tolstoy’s great novel, and his addition of steampunk elements, robots, aliens, and a hostile, corrupt government complemented the themes of the original novel. But I was bored throughout the book, and would never have finished it if I didn’t have a review to write. I’ll give it a middle score, I guess, and say give the first 100 pages or so a shot. Like Anna Karenina, this is a book that requires dedication to make it to the end, but if you like the beginning you’ll enjoy the journey through all its pages.
2.5 out of 5 stars