Leo Tolstoy and Ben H. Winters: Android Karenina

Leo Tolstoy and Ben H. Winters: Android Karenina

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Android Karenina

Author: Leo Tolstoy and Ben H. Winters
Publisher: Quirk Books

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Should the series that introduced the world to Pride And Prejudice And Zombies have dared to tinker with Tolstoy? Quirk Classics’ re-imagining of Anna Karenina takes a major leap forward from the imprint’s popular, well-reviewed Jane Austen mash-ups by envisioning an alternate 19th-century Russia at war with its own technologies.

Instead of servants to run their households, the gentry of Android Karenina have a fleet of robots, powered by the recently discovered mineral groznium; their personal manservants are Class III androids, capable of empathy, but able to be turned off at the touch of a button in case their owners need privacy. A rogue group called the Union Of Concerned Scientists, UnConSciya, regularly attacks ordinary citizens, sometimes with mechanical insects called koschei, as a protest against what it sees as slow scientific progress by the government. Yet stamping them out and exposing “Januses,” or traitors, among the population are concerns secondary to the depressing prospect that the Russian groznium stores are on the verge of running out.

Anna and Vronsky’s meeting aggravates her alienation from her husband, an upper-level bureaucrat who gave up his Class III in order to have a robot face implanted into his skull; he discovers too late that his “enhancement” is intercepting and influencing his thoughts. Levin, to the manor born yet preferring to slave away alongside the robots on his family’s groznium mine, saves Kitty from an UnConSciya attack on the electrical currents powering the “skating” rink; their wedding is later sabotaged by a series of hidden “emotion-bombs” in the chapel. As Anna and Vronsky adjust to social exile and Levin and Kitty to marriage, the government begins to execute a recall of all Class III robots for unscheduled “reprogramming,” and a new breed of koschei ravages the countryside.

The upper class that Tolstoy depicted in his novel has the same prejudices and observances now backed up by space-age powers; a good match for a girl ranks right alongside the presentation of her own personal Class III as a rite, and a potential human-robot relationship is a disgrace in the same tenor as Stiva Oblonsky’s dalliance with one of his family’s few human servants, the family mechanic. It would be impossible to measure Android Karenina apart from its predecessor, but Winters’ approach has more in common with the science-fiction genre in which he’s working than the realistic model of his source. In constructing the alternate 19th-century world in which these marvels coexist with those mores, Winters adds more sprawl, but doesn’t always fill in the backstory that would make such historical progression plausible. In some cases, he withholds information much too long; a subplot involving a mysterious force that seizes Anna Karenina against her will during times of great tension is simultaneously too vague and too potentially complex to be shoehorned into scenes attempting to advance her emotional arc. 

Like all the human stories of Android Karenina, Anna’s torment is eventually buried under the necessity of revealing UnConSciya’s agenda and the government’s program to force the aristocracy to cooperate with its plans. Then again, who needs plausibility, given the opportunity to explore the implications of an uncontrollable robot face? Android Karenina lives up to its promise to make Tolstoy “awesomer,” it just doesn’t capture the depth of feeling of its source.

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