Published June 8, 2010
Reviewed June 8, 2010
It’s now been a little over a year since the literary mash-up genre made its way into the public spotlight, and in that time the marriage of popular culture with public domain has had its share of ups and downs. It began strongly with “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” a title that sounded like a throwaway joke but exceeded expectations by cleverly using its undead graft to enhance the original’s story rather than replace it. The series continued to expand through Austen with reasonable success, adding deep sea mythology with “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters” and creating a prequel to their first entry in the fanfiction-esque “Dawn of the Dreadfuls.”
But while the first three titles opened to favorable reviews, the introduction of “PPZ” has had some rather unpleasant aftershocks. Its success led to a string of derivative books with exceedingly silly titles, which might hold up on their own but seemed to cheapen the mash-up idea simply by their very existence. This could also be reflected in various parody titles suggested online, which as time went on sadly seemed to sound more reasonable as suggestions for upcoming releases.
As I suggested previously, I thought that the reason for this was that that Quirk and others were dwelling too heavily on Jane Austen and zombies, and that they would be better suited expanding into new authors and genres. But as it turns out, that may not have been to the genre’s benefit, as the Quirk Classics’ fourth installment “Android Karenina” is their first major malfunction. While they have taken my advice by changing authors to Leo Tolstoy and genres to steampunk, the main casualty of the shift is the spirit that made the originals so successful.
“Android Karenina” follows the established formula for mash-ups by not deviating too heavily from the original’s core structure. Set in 19th century Russia, it paints a broad picture of a series of members of the Russian aristocracy and the culture surrounding them, centering around two love stories. On one hand is the affair between the elegant noblewoman Anna Karenina and the proud soldier Count Vronsky; and on the other is the courtship of young Kitty by the country gentleman Levin.
The extra element to the story comes with a literal element, the miraculous groznium, which has advanced technology by leaps and bounds. Great grav trains glide between Russian cities on magnetic rails, citizens skate on electromagnetic ice patches and waltz above the floor on high-powered air jets, and beloved-companion robots offer reassurance and replay footage of memories to their high-society owners.
In my “SSM” review I argued that the book’s main weakness was the fact that it was trying to introduce too many ideas – pirates, deep-sea monsters, steampunk tech to name a few – and “Android Karenina” feels even more bloated with content. Beyond the technology, there is a terrorist organization called UnConSciya undermining the government with sabotage dangerous insect-like “koschei” machines; the rumored existence of “Honored Guests” who are revealed to be hideous reptilian creatures trying to take over the Earth; and the discussed possibility of time travel that eventually comes together in a twist ending worthy of lesser M. Night Shymalan films. Each of these additions brings in various action scenes, which author Ben H. Winters (of “SSM”) renders competently but which feel more preposterous the longer one reads.
These elements aren’t deal-breakers on their own, but the critical failing of them is that they actually detract from the original – every time I feel real interest in the characters or setting, something outlandish completely breaks the flow. Anna is riding home on the train, considering the strange feelings Vronsky inspires in her despite her life as a wife and mother, when all of a sudden koschei attack the train and attempt “to plunge [their] heart-sucking electrode antenna into the chambers of her heart.” Kitty, pining away over tuberculosis and a broken heart, is recommended to go abroad by the doctor – and “thus were the Scherbatskys blasted into space.”
Granted, none of the titles in the mash-up field are intended to be taken seriously in the full definition of the word, but there was a strange sense of legitimacy to “Android Karenina’s” predecessors. “PPZ” kept Austen’s mannerisms and social context intact, with the zombie infestation seen as part of life they all grew accustomed to. “SSM” was more deliberately fantastical, but still managed to create a legitimate setting where the world had adapted to the “Ascension” and added new elements – remote cottages replaced with islands, London replaced by Sub-Marine Station Beta. In “Android Karenina,” the additions just feel silly at best and detrimental at worst – even the titular androids feel like mere simplifications of the original text, devices to personify character traits or voice internal dialogue.
This could also be attributed to the fact that Tolstoy, one of the legendary Russian writers and considered by some the greatest novelist of all time, is a far different animal to Jane Austen. I have not read all of the original “Anna Karenina” myself, but TLOTE’s own “Classical Anna” has and discussed it in great detail, praising it for “smooth and clear” prose with details “carefully picked to draw readers further into the world.” Tolstoy’s world is much more nuanced than Austen’s, a sprawling epic of complicated individuals where alterations resonate all the deeper – and the alterations made by Winters never seem to work in tandem with the source.
Overall, Tolstoy might not have been the best choice for adaptation – a choice made markedly clear because the mash-up is taking more from the original than it gives. At 538 pages “Android Karenina” is roughly as long as the first two Quirk Classics installments combined, but even at that length it’s still 300 pages shorter than contemporary translations of the original text. Several chapters have been edited down or removed entirely, and while the ones removed don’t seem to hurt the story (based on cursory review) there’s no telling how much characterization and context was stripped away as a result.
“Andoid Karenina” is a book that really doesn’t feel able to justify its existence – it adds nothing to Tolstoy appreciation, to the steampunk genre or to the mash-up movement it is trying to continue. It has a few curiosities here and there, but is for the most part taking a very sturdy framework and adding annoying bells and whistles that detract from the original’s effectiveness. Does this mean that it’s time to put this fledgling genre down? I’m not willing to go that far yet, but I will urge Quirk Classics to think twice if their next effort plans to put lasers or vampires into “War and Peace.”