In order to fully appreciate a parody it is normally needed to have experienced the original. Since I spent last summer in Russia of the 1870s together with Anna Karenina it felt natural this summer to read Android Karenina. Both Leo Tolstoy and Ben H Winters are named as authors, and already from the initial words
Functioning robots are all alike; every malfunctioning robot malfunctions in its own way.
it is clear that Android Karenina follows the original to such degree that the author of the original novel should be included as co-author.
The story starts off in a similar direction as the original one. Levin proposes with a bad result to Kitty, who is at that time expecting a proposal from Count Vronsky, who instead falls passionately for Anna Karenina, who reciprocate his feelings while being unhappily married to Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin, who works somewhere in the upper offices of the bureaucracy. And so on. Initially, the main difference is in the setting. This takes place in a version of Russia where samovars serve coffee, and the discovery of the miracle metal groznium has enabled a rich and wide-spread use of different kind of robots with various degrees of complexity. Most notable is that every adult has a companion robot (a Class III in the terminology used in the book) for support and comfort. For instance, Levin’s Class III is called Socrates and Anna Karenina’s Class III is called Android Karenina. The latter name is actually a bit strange since Anna Karenina presumably received her Class III before meeting her husband, and would have had the family name Oblonskaya at that time. However, as the story unfolds the world also unfolds for the reader, and it turns out that it contains a totalitarian state, and clear villains, conspiracies, co-conspiracies and couter-conspiracies. It is actually a big mess, and it turns out that the future of mankind is at stake. Clearly, this does not follow the original plot at all.
It feels a bit strange to read a book where a lot of the story and all characters are familiar but with a very different setting. It turns out that the added plot elements have required some of the characters change their personalities quite radically compared to the original book, and this feels somewhat awkward. The tempo of the story is also a bit weird where Tolstoy’s long descriptions and reasoning through inner monologues contrast with more action driven parts. I feel that this is due to the original book being very much driven by the characters while this book is driven by the plot. It would probably have been better to make this story independent from the original book and quit the literary parody aspect. On the other hand, that would also mean the honestly really funny title Android Karenina would have changed, and that would be a loss.
The book is, despite its flaws, quite a good read. I wanted to see both how the story would end, and how it would end this time…