Friday, August 27, 2010

Android Karenina (Leo Tolstoy and Ben H. Winters)

So in case you haven't noticed, lately I've had a slight bias towards reviewing books published by Quirk, a small press based in Philadelphia. This is partially due to the fact that I've loved everything I've read from them thus far (Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, Sense & Sensibility & Sea Monsters, Old Man Drinks), and partially because they are actually publishing my book next summer, so they sent me a bunch of free stuff.

That being said, this week's review and next week's review are the last of the current batch of freebies. After that it will be back to the random stuff, though I will obviously try my darndest to get more free books in the future.


Like its predecessors P&P&Z and S&S&SM, Android Karenina takes a classic piece of literature and transforms it into something... else. Ben H. Winters is at the helm again—he did Sea Monsters if you recall—and his task is to turn possibly the greatest novel in history into a robotic social commentary. Hmm. Science fiction and Russian literature are probably my least two favorite genres, so I wasn't sure what to expect here. Sci-fi I can handle sometimes (Dune, Ender's Game, those Martian Tales I reviewed a while back), but i HATE Russian literature. I've never once been able to finish a novel by a Russian author. Crime & Punishment, Doctor Zhivago, even Lolita. Luckily, there is an exception to every rule.

Android Karenina follows the story of Anna, a Russian socialite who falls madly in love with the charming Count Vronsky, a young soldier, much to the chagrin of her husband Alexei, an official in the Higher Branches. So where's the mash-up? Well, in this version of Tolstoy's great epic, each character is accompanied by a "companion," an android servant built especially for their particular needs. The androids, as well as many other technological advances anachronistic to the 19th century setting, are are constructed after discovery of a miracle element called groznium, an incredible power source. Groznium makes possible technology comparable to what we have today. The real heart of the story, however, does not come from the science fiction. Of course there are aliens, cyborgs, and gladiatorial mech battles, but this is truly a novel about society, revolution, and above all else, love.

This is the first time that one of these "Quirk Classics" has made me want to go and read the original novel. Ben H. Winters steps up his game to a remarkable degree. This is a much better book than Sense & Sensibilty & Sea Monsters, which I admit I may have rated a bit too highly looking back. Obviously, Austen's witty banter and quick conversational style is replaced by Tolstoy's microscopic detail and attention to slight mood changes. Those inherent differences are certainly noticed. What really makes Android Karenina stand out, though, is the level of integration of the injected sci-fi elements. The robots do not ever feel tacked on, or part of some gimmick. Unlike in S&S&SM, where the characters are trying to go about their lives despite the presence of sea monsters, the characters in this novel fully depend on their technologies, especially their robotic companions. The "robot question" becomes a pivotal discussion point among the principal characters as the book progresses. As is often the case, the government has a different idea than that of its citizens of what is safe and unsafe regarding technological use. But really, as in the original, this is a love story, one of the greatest ever told. That's what makes this book so exceptional, the fact that, despite all the robots and explosions and revolutionary ideals, it all comes down to whether or not two people are going to end up together. Nicely done.


Android Karenina
by Leo Tolstoy and Ben H. Winters

Definitely a better story than Sense & Sensibility & Sea Monsters, but that's mostly Tolstoy's doing.

Definitely better integrated than Sense & Sensibility & Sea Monsters, which is obviously Winters' doing.

These scores may seem inflated, but I genuinely enjoyed every moment that I was reading this book. It even gets a couple extra tenths of a point for being an accessible way to read a monumental classic that few people would ever have the patience to sit down and enjoy. Its 538 pages feel like a novella when compared to the original's 864. It also has one of those fun study guides in the back, like Pride & Prejudice & Zombies had. Love those things.


Keep reading, Genoshans!

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