Home > Books, Fiction, Something Like a Review, Writing > Something Like a Review: Android Karenina by Leo Tolstoy and Ben Winters

Something Like a Review: Android Karenina by Leo Tolstoy and Ben Winters

Lately, my genre of choice has been the literary mash-up. I am interested in and enchanted by the way contemporary writers take masterworks and reinvent them in a way that pays homage to the original work yet makes the piece relevant and interesting to today’s audience.

Not too long ago, I began my foray when I stumbled across Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith. Being somewhat of a snob and an aficionado of the original, I was skeptical. Instead of buying it, I downloaded the sample on my Kindle. Much to my surprise, I loved it and when I finished the sample, I went out and bought the book. I stopped long enough to read the original work and then devoured the new story in just a couple of days. When I saw that this was but the first of what seemed to be a burgeoning trend, I was thrilled. I picked up Sense and Sensibilities and Sea Monsters by Ben H. Winters. Like the first, I read the original work and then picked up the mash-up. Suffice to say that it was disappointing, but it was that disappointment that opened a new opportunity for me. When I mentioned my experience with both books in my “What I’m Reading” page, I voiced my trepidation about reading Android Karenina by Ben H. Winters. One of the comments I received was from Eric from Quirk Books, the publisher of all three books. He offered to send me a copy of Android Karenina and expressed his confidence that I would enjoy it.

Mind you, I did take moment to check him out and do what I could to make sure he was legit, but my curiosity got the best of me and I said yes. A couple of weeks later, I received the book on my doorstep. Though I was tempted to dive right in, it had been so long since I read Anna Karenina that I only remembered the big events. To do a fair side by side comparison, I had to take the time to read Tolstoy’s original.

For those of you who have a distance of years between today and the last time you read it, Anna Karenina is an imposing volume rich with complex relationships, politics, and intricate social and class issues. I was less than confident that Winters could pull it off and I was concerned about writing a less than positive review, but I knew that no matter what I wrote, it would be honest. I resolved to worry about the review once I was done.

When I read a literary mash-up, I’m looking for the author to maintain the voice of the original author while breathing new life into it. As I continue, I’m looking for the author to maintain the integrity of the characters’s spirits in the face of the changes the author makes to the story and ensuring that the reactions of any character are appropriate. I’m looking for “plausible” changes to the circumstances in the context of the new world. In a perfect world, I’d even say that I’m looking for some kind of continuation of theme in the context of the new story.

I am quite pleased to say that Eric was right – I really enjoyed Android Karenina. Winters redeemed himself in my eyes with the treatment of this story and not only met, but exceeded my expectations at times.

I’ll try not to give too much away, but Winters takes Tolstoy’s Russia and introduces a miracle metal called groznium which leads to incredible leaps in the available technology. The familiar social structure is fundamentally the same, but the question of the peasantry isn’t nearly as prominent to characters like Levin and Stiva. Instead of dealing with the Russian peasantry, three classes of robots are introduced into the lower social strata to fill those roles. The major classes range from lowly Class I’s (samovars, ashtrays, dice) to Class II’s which fill servant roles (porters, secretaries) to the Class III’s, also known as beloved-companions. These Class III’s become the intimates of their owners, and are often closer than family members to their owners. They are akin to butlers or ladies-in-waiting, but are also confidants. In the original text, there really isn’t a single-character parallel for the Class III’s. The political focus shifts from the oppressed masses to the targeting of the beloved Class III’s by the Ministry and the changes that loom over their mechanical heads.

Winters made some changes to the story that I really enjoyed. He managed to lose the density of the text while still maintaining an enjoyable complexity and instilling a sense of humor throughout that occasionally poked fun at the parody. To achieve a lightness not present in the original, Winters minimized previously prominent characters like Stepan Oblonsky (Stiva), and Princess Shcherbatsky (Kitty’s mother). While this can (and does) cause minor disruptions to the story, they are not unforgivable transgressions and disentangles some of the Gordian plot knot to allow for the modifications in the story. Much of the overtly political and social discussion around the peasantry and upper classes is removed from this version of the story, and in its void, Winters allows a sense of paranoia and mystery to creep in, creating interwoven layers of intrigue. He does a great job of playing up the arrival of the Honored Guests during a moment that someone familiar with the original will expect tension and a dramatic climax. To be honest, when I read it, I “knew” what was going to happen, yet when I realized that it wasn’t the outcome I expected, I said, “Wait…what?” and reread the passage. It caught me pleasantly off guard and I hope that it will other readers as well.

One of the great complaints I had about the original was Levin’s soliloquies at the end. I hated them and felt like I was wading through cold oatmeal trying to get to the end of the book when I first encountered them. I could really just kiss Ben Winters for keeping his meaderings blissfully short, and making them feel more relevant to the story instead of pertaining more to the resolution of Levin’s character development.

Not all of the changes were so happily received, however. Though much of the exposition about the social construct is removed, I was irked to see that some of the rigidity leeched out with it. While this may seem to only impact the way the characters interact with each other, it ends up changing how the characters develop. In the original text, Kitty has to wait to be introduced to the aloof Madame Stahl while her family is out of the country at the spa so she can make the acquaintance of Varenka. In this new social construct, Kitty introduces herself. This simple act changes her from the young girl tied to the social conventions of her time which have imposed her refusal to Levin in favor of Vronsky, and changes the reader’s view of her obedience to the behaviors her parents instilled in her from a young age when she meets Levin again later, and thus, changes the readers perception of her character. Giving her even such freedoms makes readers question her adherence to “socially acceptable behavior” in a way they do not in the original because of the social expectations inherent in the narrative.

The most irksome changes I encountered were critical change to the characters. While Vronsky was a member of the military force in the original, his engagement in his profession is much more understated than in this version. In Android Karenina, he is more enthusiastically and actively involved in the military and early on, it made me wonder how his character’s demeanor would change later in the story.

Even Anna, subject to the social consequences of her choices thus far, changes. In the original novel, it is with an outward silence and strength that she stands up under the scrutiny of others, as she does in the opera house. In the re-imagining, not only does Anna show the characteristic strength, she displays viable empowerment, eroding the reader’s perception of her as outwardly strong yet inwardly fragile. She also takes a much more active role in Vozdvizhenskoe’s development, maintenance and defense, altering her behavior from the original. It makes the juxtaposition of her strength against her paranoia regarding her place with Vronsky seem out of place. In the original, I felt quite connected to Anna’s mental state and her fate seemed not only realistic, but felt like a relief. In this story, I could still feel the tempest swirling within her, but it felt more contrived than the original, and as though the artfulness of it was lost because of the changes to her character.

In the original, Vronsky seeks the comfort of Stiva, his friend, who advocates not yielding to Anna’s feminine demands and encourages Vronsky to assert his “masculine independence.” With Stiva’s role vastly diminished in this story, those conversations don’t happen, yet when Vronsky reacts to Anna’s paranoia, the phrase recurs and feels out of context with the story and his character in general. In this story, he doesn’t feel like a man trapped by his love, but rather a man who is humoring the woman he loves and trying to assuage her fits of childish angst.

The rankling change that I both loved and hated in equal measure was the change in Alexei Karenin. In the original, Karenin was a man in the midst of a political power struggle who exerted his power over the life of his wife and her lover by denying her power to achieve happiness by denying her divorce, denying her access to her son, and some would argue, allowing the social world to shut her out by forbidding her access to the one thing that would have reopened the doors – a marriage to Vronsky. In the original, after Anna left her husband, he acquired a social and religious conscience in the form of Countess Lydia Ivanovna. She was manipulative in a deceptively benevolent way, urging him to act as a Christian, and to uphold the morals of the Church. Her recommendations were subversively hostile to Anna, but were always’ made from a place of “love” where Karenin was concerned. He is not directly confrontational and that is one of the things that frustrates Anna, causing her to exclaim that he’s not human. In the new version, Karenin’s humanity seeps away under the counsel of his Class III and is replaced by a malevolence that brings him to physically intimidate both Anna and Vronsky and urges him to destroy the infant Annie as he stands over her crib. In the original text, Karenin is stuck in the middle of a political power struggle wherein he has no real position and leverage; in the new version, he faces a similar obstacle, but overcomes it with alacrity. Karenin comes into political power and is installed as the figurehead behind a dark project that unnerves many characters and inspires a feeling of guilt in Anna over her role in bringing the project to fruition. Anna from the original text is unapologetic for seeking her own happiness and for her actions; Anna from Android Karenina is under the impression that her actions doom not only herself, but also her fellow Russians in the context of Karenin’s project. While I enjoyed having a real villian to intensify the changes in the story, I rather liked the milksop Karenin and the way he seemed to drift through the story, unaltered and unalterable by the strength of his will. I like the change as much as I dislike it.

As I was nearing the end, I thought I encountered a big, cheap, eye-rolling plot device and with a heavy sigh, I pushed through it thinking something along the lines of “he did so well for so long, and now, he’s going to ruin it with this crap?” I will happily eat those words. While a stereo-typical plot device did manifest very near the end, it was cleverly used and in conjunction with a dual-epilogue, effectively brought the story to a satisfying close. Both of the epilogues wrapped back into the story’s Moebius strip and resolved the troubling changes to Vronsky’s and Anna’s characters.

While this won’t stand up to heavy literary scrutiny and there are disparities when engaging in a side by side comparison of the original, Android Karenina is a great piece and a fun twist on Anna Karenina. It brings in all of the intrigues of the originals, cuts the difficult-to-get-through politics and has unexpected twists to delight the reader. For those who will focus on comparing the two volumes, or the literary purists (aka “book snobs”), I don’t recommend doing a side by side reading. I do, however, recommend enjoying this light-hearted look at a classic tale through sci-fi lenses. In my opinion, Ben H. Winters did it right this time and has redeemed himself with this tale.

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