Reviewed in this essay:
Android Karenina is yet another mash-up novel from Philadelphia’s Quirk Books, a publisher with a penchant for commingling the literary canon with monster stories. Its Pride and Prejudice and Zombies sat near the top of the New York Times bestseller list in 2009. Co-authored by Ben H. Winters, this rehashing of Leo Tolstoy’s classic Anna Karenina takes us to a steampunk version of Russia filled with droids, wondrous transportation systems, colonies on the moon and trips to the orbit of Venus.
As a devoted reader of Anna Karenina, I’m tempted to attack this android derivation, take the purist’s approach and dismiss the book outright. The reception of the Quirk Books mash-ups suggests that this is in fact what most readers are doing: though many reviewers jumped on board with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies in 2009, subsequent titles have received lukewarm critical attention and sold with less success. A quick survey of the literary blogosphere reveals that many readers accuse the publisher of abandoning its initial premise and depending too heavily on cheap tricks and absurd plot twists. In the case of Android Karenina, however, Winters’s additions complement the novel. He weaves science fiction and dystopian subplots into Tolstoy’s classic with dexterity, playfully altering the novel’s famous portrayal of psychology, and shining a contemporary light on its central themes of control and manipulation.
Winters adds elements from twentieth-century dystopian novels, most obviously Orwell’s. In Android Karenina, Russia has a decidedly totalitarian feel. Karenin assumes control of the country and has his image plastered everywhere. Instead of “Big Brother” he is dubbed “Tsar.” The state is guarded by all sorts of secret police who have very few limits on their powers. Their interference in people’s daily affairs ranges from the mildly inconvenient to the wantonly murderous. Meanwhile, atop the Moscow Tower of the Ministry a “forever scanning” eye watches over Russia. Though most seem content, not everyone is happy with the government’s invasive and arbitrary rule in the name of security. Every dystopian novel needs an underground resistance, and this one is no exception. A group of talented mad scientists called UnConSciya (Union of Concerned Scientists) hopes to take Russia into a new era where scientific progress continues to develop, but not at the expense of ethics.
As the title suggests, robots play a key role in the novel and invoke numerous recognizable science-fiction allusions. Time-travelling assassins make the comparison to the Terminator film franchise unavoidable, while the novel also conjures Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and its film adaptation Blade Runner. It seems that the more convincingly human an android appears, the less self-aware it is, leading inevitably to human-robot couplings (which never prove as anatomically tricky as you might expect). On top of all the complications that arise in a totalitarian society with robots, it turns out that Russia is under attack… from aliens. In addition to Blade Runner, Winters makes clear reference to Alien, another Ridley Scott film: these aliens emerge into life by violently erupting from the ribcages of unsuspecting human victims.
Other subtexts in Android Karenina refer to contemporary anxieties about non-renewable resources. The wonder metal groznium, responsible for ushering in the robotic age, is dug up from deep beneath the Earth’s surface. By the end of the novel, groznium must be rationed and society deprived of its beloved and helpful androids. Twenty-first century concerns about terrorism and state security also surface when the Ministry accuses UnConSciya of unspeakable acts of violence and uses this as a justification for their heightened military vigilance. The novel ends with a conspiracy theory when it emerges that UnConSciya is innocent: the Ministry perpetrated the violence in order to keep people in fear.
The purpose of Android Karenina is parody and lampoon. It pokes fun at the literary canon, and succeeds. It would be a mistake, however, to see all these sci-fi additions only as superficial threads used to embroider the original novel into something garish; I think in his handling of the android problem, Winters has grafted science fiction and dystopian subplots onto two of the most important features of the original novel.
First, these robots fulfill the role of subconscious and conscience and therefore play a part in developing the psychological and moral nuances for which Tolstoy’s work is so famous. The droids tend to speak or act at moments when, in the original novel, characters would reflect on their actions. Levin’s robot, Socrates, voices his owner’s self-doubt. Stiva’s robot, Small Stiva, playfully complements his gregarious and jovial nature. Nikolai’s robot, Karnak, is falling to pieces. Interestingly, Anna’s robot, Android Karenina, does not have the ability to speak, a choice that builds upon this character’s already incomplete awareness of her conscience in the original.
Since they are servants and subject to the whim of their human masters, the robots’ presence pertains to another very important theme in Anna Karenina—that of control and manipulation. They are programmed to never transgress the “Iron Laws:” these stipulate that no robot shall harm a human being, shall disobey a human being, or shall allow itself to be harmed—clearly an allusion to Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. Though adherence to this code is constantly put to the test in the name of our reading enjoyment, Winters shows that he is more interested in the effect control has on the master than on the servant. By the close of the novel he portrays the symptoms of withdrawal the characters feel as the state deprives them of their beloved droids. While Tolstoy asks how romance can lead us to control and manipulate the ones we love, Winters’s enjoyable tomfoolery of a mash-up presents the deleterious effects of control on those who exercise it.