Before being sent an ARC of Android Karenina, Ben H. Winters' latest literary heresy, I had never read a "mash-up" book. My sister sent me I, Scrooge, a mash-up of zombies and Dickens's A Christmas Carol, but I'm saving that for the festive season. I thought the idea of a mash-up was clever, but was uninterested in a long-form treatment of the ideas. The concept seemed better suited to an anthology like the '90s Politically Correct Bedtime Stories. Concessions to cleverness aside, the subsequent craze of mash-up books put me off ever picking one up on my own initiative. In principle, I feel the same way about the mash-up as I do about politically-correct versions of Christian hymns: it's like putting clothes on art by Peter Paul Rubens, or giving the Mona Lisa a boob-job. My rule of thumb is that you don't go effing around with other people's art. Write your own damn story. Write a pastiche if you like. As readers of the blog know, I love recursive fantasy, so I'm not adverse to artists being inspired by others to the point of using their characters. However, the idea of taking someone else's whole text and bastardizing it gives me pause.
That said, I'm at least impressed by Winters' choice for his latest foray. If you're going to be irreverent, why limit yourself to Austen? She has die-hard fans and scholars, but is light fare compared to the perpetually grim Tolstoy. Anna Karenina is argued to be the greatest novel ever written, and with good reason, treating the same domestic spaces Austen uses with a more serious and darker pen. Where Austen provides a comedy of manners and traditionalism, Tolstoy provides infidelity and reflections on social change. My concern with Winters's choice was wondering how he would handle these more complex themes.
I'm not a Tolstoy scholar, but I am a science fiction scholar, so while I can't comment on the period Russia end of things, I can say that the idea of using robots in the place of the Russian lower classes was a good move, beyond the clever pun it provides. Of course, it's nothing new to the SF aficionado. Robots as an oppressed class is as old an idea as the term itself. Karel Čapek's seminal play R.U.R. introduced both the word "robot" and the idea of automatons as a metaphor for the underclass. In some ways, it's too bad Winters didn't undertake mashing up R.U.R. with Karenina. But that's wishing for some other book, and I digress. Suffice to say I think Winters found a clever way of retaining the original novel's thematic thrust while simultaneously providing what I considered the book's most clever inversion. If you've never read Anna Karenina, and don't know how it ends, then I'll warn you there are minor spoilers ahead.
In Tolstoy's original novel, Anna commits suicide, an action often seen as gloomy self-absorption, a means by which to escape a life gone wrong, seen clearly by how she begins imprinting her own mental state on her fellow travelers. In Winters, Anna's suicide takes on an entirely new meaning, which both subverts Tolstoy, but is true to the tradition of artificial humans and the consequent issues of identity their presence often provokes. The addition of the robots changes the meaning of Anna's death. I'd say more, but I don't want to ruin Winter's surprises.
On an entirely different tack, I don't really think of the book as steampunk per se: the style of robots and the way in which Winters writes about them feels more Asimov than "Steampunch." However, it does fulfill my aesthetic requirements: it's certainly retrofuturistic, and contains some elements of technofantasy. In an interview with Lisa Binion at Bella Online, Winters speaks about groznium, the element of technofantasy in Android Karenina: "Oh, it’s made-up as all hell. Groznium is the mysterious and entirely imaginary metal discovered beneath the Russian soil in the time of Ivan the Terrible. In fact, Ivan the Terrible, in Russian, is Ivan Grozny." Once again, dear readers, I must submit, there's very little steam in steampunk. We can now add groznium to the fraternity of aether and phlogiston. Still, it has likely appeal for those who enjoy steampunk. What's more steampunk than killing yourself by being run over by a train...although, to add further injury to insult of the steam in steampunk, it's a gravity train, not a steam one.
Did my reading of Android Karenina change my mind about mash-ups? A bit. I started out slavishly comparing the new with the original, until I realized how incredibly pointless that was. I wasn't letting Winters' approach stand on its own, which is how it will be read by the majority of readers who pick it up. I doubt that the majority of Winters's sales to date have been Austen scholars, though I know several who have read them. When I stopped comparing Winters with Tolstoy, I enjoyed myself a lot more. I can't say I loved it. The reading is uneven at the level of style, but I do applaud Winters for his commitment to the SF tropes he uses (he plays with time as well). And as always, I began thinking about how one might teach such a book, and ultimately concede that I'd rather have people read bastardized Tolstoy than none at all.