FIVE QUESTIONS: BEN H. WINTERS
Ben H. Winters shares the author credit on his new book with literary lion Leo Tolstoy, who died 100 years ago this November. The book is called “Android Karenina“ and, yes, that’s right, it reimagines the 19th-century masterpiece “Anna Karenina” as a sci-fi adventure. The book is from Quirk Classics, the same publishing house that gleefully pounced on public domain classics to give the world “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters” and “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” Hero Complex contributor Noelene Clark caught up with Winters to talk about the tricky task of adding robot gears to a classic that William Faulkner called the best novel ever written.
NC: “Anna Karenina” is an epic love story. It’s universally regarded as an essential work of literature. You’ve added a robot uprising. What do you think Tolstoy would say about your version of his novel?
BW: In this case, I fear that he would be a little bit taken aback. He seems to have taken himself very seriously, and his work very seriously, so he might have some trouble with it. I do think he would see some of that stuff, the connections between his philosophy and spiritual study that I tried to maintain. The stuff that makes the original so powerful and so deep. He would dig that. He would probably prefer his version, but what are you going to do? Both I and the publishers knew that we wanted to do another one after “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters,” and “Anna Karenina” was always at the top of the list. It’s universally known as one of the best, if not the best novel ever written. If you’re going to perform this insane idea of transforming great classical novels into science fiction action novels, why not go for the best?
And doing a sci-fi adventure for “Anna Karenina” felt right. It felt fulfilling. Tolstoy was really interested in a lot of moral and spiritual questions of his time. A lot of those questions, you could ask in a different way, using sci-fi themes. A question Tolstoy asks is how is he supposed to treat the poor peasants working on his land? And a similar question you find time and time again in science fiction is: If mankind creates these super-intelligent machines that are everything but human, just short of being fully human, then what responsibility do we have for them? How should we treat them? These are the questions Tolstoy was asking about the peasant class, when Russian society was on the brink of change. And that’s where we find really good and interesting adventure stories — in times of transition.
NC: How did you condense the storyline of this 1,000-page classic into roughly 500 pages while still adding an original science-fiction plot?
BW: Tolstoy loved to put things in his books that aren’t necessarily moving the plot, but things he found interesting. He’d stop the story and for four chapters go over agriculture or how provincial elections are run. But some of that non-plot stuff I did keep, and did transform into sci-fi material when I thought it would be cool. It was extremely fun…. There’s a famous sequence in “Anna Karenina” where Levin decides for one day he is going to thresh wheat alongside his servants. I toyed around with cutting it, but it’s really beautiful and famous. So now in my version, he’s a groznium miner — groznium is sort of a miracle mineral in the story– and he goes down to mine groznium alongside his robots. I took that whole sequence and tweaked it. So instead of working alongside peasants, he’s working alongside robots, but there’s still that sense of virtue he attains… You get the satisfaction of creating something totally new and totally unexpected, but at the same time, I got to rely on the structure and the spirit of this really powerful work. Anna Karenina has lasted this long for a reason. It’s incredibly powerful and moving, and I tried to retain those elements that make it such a classic. At the same time, I got to create a sci-fi universe where there’s this robot revolution and an alien invasion. I only hope it as much fun to read as it was to write.
I merged a “Star Wars“-like melodrama with a backdrop of revolution with a Tolstoy love story with a backdrop of society on the brink of revolution. It’s a space opera as opposed to a hard science sci-fi. It is more in the tradition of “Star Wars.” We don’t know how everything works, but we in the audience go along with it because the storytelling is that fun. It’s more about the love story and the plot than it is about the detailed technicality. Once you start thinking about it, at least to me, it just screamed sci-fi…. It’s so interesting to me that, knock on wood, Tolstoy already had some of this on the brain. He was really concerned about the effect of the telegraph on society, that it was changing communication for the worse, about the rail system. The train, stuff like that, I barely had to touch. I just let it be. The terrible way that Nikolai dies from tuberculosis, I barely had to do anything. Everything, his flesh putrefying and his eyes bugging out, was already there. All I had to do was add the alien bursting out his stomach at the end. It’s the natural overlap between the original and the world of dark science fiction.
NC: Besides these classic/sci-fi mashups for Quirk Classics, you’ve also worked on the popular “Worst-Case Scenario” guides. Was there any carryover from writing those books when you started writing “Android Karenina?”
BW: They’re obviously very different, but what the books have in common is a real deadpan sense of humor. They both have a way of taking something really seriously when it is, on the surface, so absurd. That’s what the draw is. We have this way of taking certain things and works of art, the Shakespeare, and putting it on a pedestal, and saying, “Well that’s the serious stuff,” and we treat it seriously. But when you goof around and take it down from the pedestal and have some fun dancing around it a bit, it’s really satisfying. It’s not as if it can’t go back on the pedestal. One can still go back and read the original. In my experience, if people read the new version, they do go back and discover the original. It’s a gateway to introducing people to classic literature.
What I really wanted to do was write a book that even if someone had never read “Anna Karenina,” never planned to, never even heard of it, they could read this and think, “Ah, that was a cool book!” All the stuff that you want for a satisfying action adventure book, I wanted this book to do, while at the same time to keep the spirit and soul of the original. I’m constantly surprised by the people who tell me they’re excited to read this. There are the sci-fi buffs, the literature fans curious to see how I’ve made Anna Karenina a science-fiction story, and the curious average reader who sees it and says, “Wait, what the heck is this?” Once they’re drawn in, it’s a whole really cool book.
NC: You have an alien attack, a villain with a steam-punk-style half-face, and robots with names like Socrates and Darling Girl. How did you come up with this? What were your influences?
BW: For robot names, each robot is a beloved companion of one or the other of the main characters. I put myself in the position of the characters, and gave them a robot to name, and asked, “What would I name my robot?” I think deep down, each of us would love to have a beloved companion robot to follow us around and listen to our thoughts and lend a helping hand when we need one. I spent a lot of time revisiting classic science fiction. Jules Verne’s “From the Earth to the Moon.” The “Star Wars” movies, which is the standard science fiction adventure story for our generation. Darth Vader is obviously the great sci-fi villain of our era, and in “Android Karenina,” Karenin has that hideous mask covering the side of his face. But I looked everywhere. “The Stepford Wives,” “Battlestar Galactica,” 2001: A Space Odyssey.” You don’t have to look that far in society to find inspiration. Isaac Asimov. When you write anything involving robots, you can’t avoid Isaac Asimov. He was asking some of the same questions that Tolstoy was asking. I thought, “What would Tolstoy have written if he were influenced by Asimov rather than the other way around?”
NC: Do you see yourself writing more of these novels in the future?
BW: I am taking a break right now from this genre. I know Quirk has plans for some other things, but I’m ready to take a pause from this mini-genre. I started working on “Android Karenina” before “Sea Monsters” came out. Now I’m thinking more about my young adult novel. It’s called “The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman.” It’s being published by HarperCollins and comes out in September. It will be the first novel with just my name on the cover, no other person – dead or alive.
– Noelene Clark
Images credit: Quirk Classics
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