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  • Review: Android Karenina

    A few weeks back, Tiffany Kelly of Quirk Classics invited me to do a review of Android Karenina. Being a literature enthusiast, I could not say no. So here’s my review of yet another great Steampunk novel.

    Android Karenina by Ben Winters is a Steampunk take on Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel and in deed, the plot resembles the original to a great degree and all original protagonists are present. They are incarnated in a way befitting a Steampunk setting. Android Karenina is set against a high-tech Steampunk background, placed in a pseudo 19th century Russia.
    What first struck me  was the easiness with which the human protagonists interact with their robotic alter-egos/side-kicks, the Class III companions. These robots have been around quite a while by the time the events of the novel unfold and have helped create a unique society.
    The society of Android Karenina’s Russia, and in deed the whole country, could have been taken from a Belle Epoque vision of the year 2000: Fashion and society has not changed, only technology has advanced and provides novel ways of travel, new methods to treat illnesses and new forms of entertainment. The three-dimensional dance early in the novel and the grav-skating are just two particularly delightful examples of this.
    The first part of the novel takes the reader into a very intricate and detailed vision of a Belle Epoque utopia, brought about by the discovery of the mystery and almost magical metal Groznium, which has transformed society “since the days of the Czars” and brought amazing advances.
    The Class III companions are the most visible part of these advancements. The Class IIIs are sentient machines, extensions and complementaries of their owners personality. They are also part of Coming-of-Age. Children do not have Class III companions. The gift of a Class III marks the entry into adult life.
    But despite all this technology, society has changed little. For the most part it resembles the highly stratified society of late-czarist Russia. All protagonists are also part of the upper echelons of society, common people are absent. Their absence is so drastic, I at times wondered if they had not been completely replaced by Class II (menial work) robots. This fear was elevated later in the novel, though. Interestingly, the automatons seem to have a standing covering the entire spectrum from slaves to trusted friends. Levin, Stiva and Anna Karenina treat their companions with respect, while other members of High Society delight in cruel games involving their mechanical servants, very much like serfs used to be treated in czarist Russia, depending on their lord.
    In the first part of Android Karenina, we are also introduced to all the main characters and their various companions. This introduction is quite lengthy. As a result, Android Karenina has a rather slow start. Still, the high-tech vision of an extended 19th century depicted in the novel is quite enthralling.
    As the Ben Winter’s tale progresses and the reader learns more about the world, the utopia becomes tarnished. There is an underground movement of scientists using strange and advanced technologies to create emotion-bombs and god-mouths (I think they are miniature black holes of some sort) to wreak havoc.
    There is also the shadow of an alien presence, the Honored Guests, which is cast over some occultist fringes of Moscow’s high society. There is even a religion based around these aliens, but the government acts rather harshly against it.
    Another quite fascinating but rather disturbing feature is the almost complete absence of other parts of the world.
    Count Vronsky and Anna Karenina sometimes converse in French and Count Vronsky’s mecanicien
    is an Englishman. At some later point, Vronsky accompanies a “foreign prince” and shows him around Russia, but that is it. The rest of the world only exists in the margins. Even during part two of the novel “Voyage of the Shcherbatskys”, in which the reader is taken along the Shcherbatskys voyage into space, we only meet Russians. I was left with the impression that Android Karenina’s Russia was not quite a real place, even in the context of the novel. Rather, it seems to exist in some other, dreamlike state, all on its own. This isolation becomes even more apparent in the last part, when the people of Russia are faced with a dire threat that sure would have caused the neighbouring countries to intervene on Russia’s side.

    Without wanting to spoil anything, the plot of Android Karenina offers quite a few interesting twists. This is one of the most enjoyable factors of the novel, but also one of its flaws. At first, I was surprised and delighted, when a surprising new element was added, but there are too many of these. The plot contains elements of I, Robot, Terminator, Aliens and The War of the Worlds. You can also argue that one scene is reminiscent of Starship Troopers. Leaving out some of these elements would not have hurt the plot and would have prevented it becoming somewhat overburdened towards the end. The second (and final) element I found irritating are the lengthy descriptions of everyday events and looks inside the minds and musings of the protagonists. It made me skip pages on a few occasions and thus I missed an important bit, just half a page in length, which is actually the key scene of the novel. Without said lengths, Android Karenina would have been more enjoyable.
    Those two are my only points of criticism, though. I found Android Karenina to be a thoroughly entertaining, enthralling and inspiering novel. I especially enjoyed the Russian flavour to Steampunk, something I had not encountered before.
    Sadly, I cannot completely credit Mr. Winters for the creation of the very believable characters, since they were closely based on Tolstoy’s work.  His creation of the Class III companions, especially Lupo and Little Stiva (whose passing I mourned) deserve all the credit that is due.
    On a final note, Android Karenina does something I have not encountered before: The book, not just the novel, breaches the fourth barrier. There are elements in the book, little details, that presume the book is printed in a world were the events of Android Karenina are as likely as the events of Anna Karenina are in our world. All I can say is: Special thanks to II/ENGLISHRENDERER/94!

    In conclusion, Android Karenina is an engaging and at times heavy read with unnecessary lengthy stretches and a few too many elements in the plot. It is also a beautiful, harrowing and sad tale of a technological Utopia descending slowly into a strange form of Orwellian Steampunk Stalinism. It is rich in detail and creates a very unique and even by Steampunk standards strange and dreamlike world within its pages that strives to reach out towards the reader.

    On the Zeppelin scale, I rate it seven out of ten. It also gets an extra Zeppelin for breaking the fourth wall.

    If you want to know more, check out the Android Karenina Website.

    And, to celebrate the release of Android Karenina, Quirk Classics is also holding a draw with a chance to win 25 Quirk Classic Prize Packs, including:

    • Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls by Steve Hockensmith
    • How to Survive a Horror Movie by Seth Grahame-Smith
    • Dracula’s Heir: An Interactive Mystery by Sam Stall
    • Extreme Encounters by Greg Emmanuel
    • How to Tell if Your Boyfriend is The Antichrist by Patricia Carlin (and some more cool surprizes)

    In order to participate in the draw, follow this link, that’s it. (due to time-difference, the link might not be available straight away, keep trying).

    PS: Neil Gaiman Week continues later today, with a little essay by my friend Daliah Jane.


  • Review: Dexter Palmer – The Dream of Perpetual Motion

    The Dream of Perpetual Motion
    The Dream of Perpetual Motion

    Of all the Steampunk novels I have read until now, The Dream of Perpetual Motion is the strangest and most bizarre tale. If I had to sum it up in one sentence it would be this:
    Shakespeare’s The Tempest set in a Steampunk world while Shakespeare was on a bad trip.

    Mr. Palmer draws heavily on The Tempest in his novel, I also recommend everyone to get themselves at least somewhat acquainted with the plot of The Tempest and the protagonists and their role. Knowledge about this play adds a lot to the joy of reading The Dream of Perpetual Motion. The original features on several occasions and we meet strange versions of Prospero, Miranda, Caliban and Ferdinand. They are all protagonists in The Dream of Perpetual Motion to varying degrees of importance. Prospero has some resemblance to his namesake in The Tempest, but he is a dark version of the Shakespearian character. A technological necromancer more at home with devices and machines than humans and other living beings. Miranda shares the innocence of Shakespeare’s Miranda but this innocence also harbours a dark secret. Caliban, any closer description of Caliban would spoil too much so I shall have to skip him. Personally, I found him the most likeable of the Taligent family. Ferdinand is a character from the margins. We also meet other, strange characters like the drivers of shrink-cabs (taxis which also sort your psyche out) and a sculptor who for 25 years did nothing but portray Miranda. Now he is an obsessed and insane wreck and a chilling testimony to corrupted art.

    The plot itself begins in the childhood of the narrator, Harold Winslow. He narrates the story from his cabin aboard a giant Zeppelin, the Chrysalis. We learn that as a child he lived in poverty with his father and elder sister in Xeroville and by fortune or fate his life became intertwined with that of the city’s ruler, Prospero Taligent, and his adoptive daughter, Miranda.
    The story follows several strands, some in the recent past of the narrator’s life, some recollections of his childhood and youth, which makes the novel a bit difficult to follow at times but it all makes sense in the end.
    All lines converge , all the riddles are solved and all the mysteries revealed. Although The Dream of Perpetual Motion is not the easiest novel to get through (my only point of contention), Dexter Palmer manages beautifully to draw the reader into the the story. Once one has gotten into the plot, it is hard to put the book aside.
    We learn about the city through Harold’s eyes and as his life progresses it becomes clear that everything is not headed towards the scientific Utopia which is the promise the future holds when Harold is a child. Instead, we witness the decay of a society under the influence of too many machines and too much science and logic for its own sake.
    In between there are almost dreamlike sequences when Harold recalls his visit to Prospero’s tower. The Tower is a strange and haunting amalgam of smoke, mirrors, strange inhabitants and high technology. It is haunted by Prospero’s dreams, both those he made real and his final dream, which eludes him almost until his death.
    Prospero’s dreams are what is revealed to be the driving force behind everything in Xeroville. Prospero wants to be a benefactor, a loving father and a philantropist. But he cannot really understand his fellow men and all his endevours eventually end in frustration and horror. As the story progresses, Dexter Palmer starts paint a chilling picture of an increasingly alien and yet hauntingly familiar culture and society, dominated by a monolithic cooperation and its dictates on human lives. Reality itself becomes mutable just as it is inside Prospero’s tower. It begins with the seeping-in of casual insanity in places we do not expect and ends with the unravelling of Prospero’s and Caliban’s true nature and the final fate of Miranda.
    Also, although I would hesitate to call The Dream of Perpetual Motion an action-novel, the tension never leaves the story. It always feels like there is a revelation, something marvellous, unexpected or horrifying waiting on the next page. When a revelation does occur, Mr. Palmer still manages to have it come from an unexpected angle and thus surprise us.

    The Dream of Perpetual Motion to me is a moral tale of the wonders of technology gone mad, of human endeavours being corrupted by misunderstood motivations and ill-placed good intentions. It is a haunting and harrowing tale and it is not for the casual reader. This said, I believe it is already a classic and I would not be surprised to one day find it on a “required reading” list for a Shakespeare seminar. Dexter Palmer’s debut let’s him take a place among the masters of Steampunk literature. It is my hope that the somewhat open end of this tale leaves enough space for a sequel.


  • George Mann – Ghosts of Manhattan

    Ghosts of Manhattan CoverI was once again lucky enough to be able to do a pre-release review of a most excellent novel, Ghosts of Manhattan:

    After having done a review on Lavie Tidhar’s The Bookman I was eager to see how Ghosts of Manhattan would measure up against it.
    At first I was not too impressed. The plot seemed too transparent, I thought it was obvious after about 50 pages who the eponymous Ghost was and who was most likely the villain, I was wrong about the latter. I also realized that I measured Ghosts of Manhattan along the wrong standards. Ghosts of Manhattan is not a mystery tale, it is straight forward pulp. After I got that, the novel suddenly became very enjoyable.
    Ghosts of Manhattan is a dirty, gritty, action-packed noir tale. The hero, The Ghost, is haunted by memories which are only hinted at until the finale and from which he takes part of his strength to fight crime. The New York he is trying to protect is a city with the Mob like a festering wound at its core, it is the New York of the Roaring Twenties, only darker.
    Along with the Ghost comes the full range of characters you would expect in a noir setting: The driven, untouchable cop in the form of Donovan. Celeste the beautiful jazz-singer from a seedy bar, the hero’s love-interest with a dark secret. Countless expendable goons and The Roman at the head of the pyramid of crime, terrorizing the city for his own nefarious ends, which run far deeper than I expected. The characters are very believable within the setting despite and maybe because of the cliches they are. The Mafia wants to bribe the good cop, when money fails they threaten violence against him and his wife. The second-in-command of the mob is a sleazy, demonical rat, the good cop a tough but fair guy who can take a beating.
    In best pulp fashion, the action starts quickly and keeps going at a very fast pace right to the last chapter. The tension also never leaves this novel, there is always something happening. Fistfights, shoot-outs, mad chases across the roofs of New York, every page holds another thrill.
    However, this noir tale goes further and deeper:
    There is the steampunk, or maybe in this case, dieselpunk background it is set against. We get steam-powered cars, rocked-accelerated biplanes, tesla-coil power generators and creatures of strange science. This all ads flavour to the story, from the technology used by all protagonists, from weapons to heavy equipment, to the history of the world and the reason The Great War came to an end and what led to the cold war between the USA and the British Empire.
    There are also elements to the triad of principal characters: The Ghost, Celeste and The Roman, that you would not get in a normal noir setting, but I may not say more, lest I spoil it for the reader.

    Now for the few downs of the novel:
    As I said before, the plot is a little too straight forward and transparent for my tastes. Also, The Ghost resembles Batman too much. This may be excusable by the fact that you do not have too many options when it comes to pulp heroes with a dark secret or mysterious past, still, the parallels are too obvious.

    Also (SPOILER ALERT), The Ghost of Manhattan effectively has two separate endings. The first one comes with the, unfortunately inevitable, loss of Celeste. The second comes a few pages later, with the discovery of another mystery that was already hinted at in the margins of the novel. I would have much preferred a more ambiguous demise of Celeste, something that would have made a rescue possible, but who knows what the future holds in a world where reality is not all it seems and there are forces at work beyond mortal comprehension (END SPOILER)

    To sum up:
    All in all The Ghosts of Manhattan is a very enjoyable read. It is pure pulp entertainment. Once you get into the flow of the narrative, it is hard to put the novel down again. It drives you ever onward to the seemingly inevitable conclusion.
    Yet, the conclusion is not inevitable. The Ghosts of Manhattan ends with a major twist and a scene which promises a sequel.
    Ghosts of Manhattan makes for excellent entertainment on dark, rainy evenings. Best enjoyed with your favourite piece of Jazz or Swing playing in the background.