Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Leo Tolstoy and Isaac Asimov: Unlikely Literary Bedfellows

When one thinks of the sprawling background established by Leo Tolstoy in Anna Karenina a connection to Isaac Asimov isn't usually found. Asimov's groundbreaking work in science fiction are not what a reader would take into consideration with their reading of the novel under normal circumstances.  However, Android Karenina, Quirk Classics new mash-up novel by Leo Tolstoy and Ben H. Winters, is far from normal circumstances.  It combines Tolstoy's view on realism and Asimov's view on robotics to create a fascinating new world with multiple classes of robots and the normal interactions between humans.  I confess that if it weren't for my husband I never would have realized Asimov had such an important part in this book. While discussing certain parts of the book with him I was explaining about the Iron Laws established for the robots (1. Cannot hurt a human, 2. Must obey humans, 3. Cannot intentionally harm themselves) and he became very excited.  I'm not much of a sci-fi reader myself but my husband is and was fascinated at how Asimov's ideas were integrated with the story.  Now that I've read up on Asimov and his writings it makes perfect sense for Mr. Winters to use him as a base model for a robot-dependant society.

Creating that society for 19th century Russia based on "miracle metal" groznium could not have been easy for Winters.  Establishing a hierarchy of robots from a lowly Class I mouse bot to a Class III Companion, which has highly developed interaction programs, helped eased readers into the idea. Groznium is entire backbone of the new civilization and is what has allowed them to build a society with functional robots. As such, the characters keep referring back to a time without it as if they couldn't understand how people survived without this amazing discovery.  Kitty, for instance, mentions she has to "remember like a child" before she gets her Class III Robot Titania to do it for her.  Levin has similar thoughts while he's working in his groznium mine with the robots and can't imagine how farmers ever worked without them. 

As is inevitable no matter when the technology is introduced, as soon as it is someone wants to begin improving upon the original.  The UnConScyia (Union of Concerned Scientists) are plaguing the government and their hold over the robotic developments because they don't feel they aren't progressing far enough or fast enough.  They terrorize citizens by using emotion bombs and creating accidents on magnetized skating rinks.  We see plainly enough, though, that the government has its own idea of progress and people like Alexei Karenin are working to make their plans reality.  Karenin's own Class III companion robot is experimental and is not widely known to the public and he continues to work on an "upgrade" program to existing Class III's.

The robotic element of the story seemed at times to detract from the human element, at least for me.  Anna's distress over her unhappy marriage to Karenin and her overpowering love for Vronsky seem to get minimized by the technology surrounding it.  Winters creates an effective tool in having the robots go into Surcease mode (shut themselves down for their owners privacy) during particularly difficult scenes but that doesn't eliminate from their overpowering presence.  Granted, when writing a novel that includes such advanced robots as these it is hard to downplay their role.

As a whole Android Karenina is a more lighthearted take on Tolstoy's original book.  The addition of space travel, air borne balls and robotic body armour serves as a great backdrop to explore a different setting but the same themes of love, devotion and unhappiness that are so prevalent in Anna Karenina.  I know I really enjoyed the read and look forward to more mash-up novels coming our way soon!

As a special bonus for the release of Android Karenina you can visit this website for your chance to win an awesome prize pack worth almost $100.  Tell them you read it here and you'll be entered to one of the 25 prize packs they're giving away.

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