King Rao in Vauhini Vara’s exciting debut novel, “The Immortal King Rao,” isn’t exactly royalty. But on a coconut plantation in his Indian village of Kothapalli, his prosperous Dalit family raises the auspicious firstborn son of a firstborn son to believe in his inherent greatness. In 1974, as a computer science graduate student, Rao moves to Puget Sound, where he meets and later marries Margie, an equally curious and enthusiastic fighter. Together, they design a personal computer, one of the first of its kind.
Decades later, nationalism and a pandemic sweep the world and further destabilize nations. Rao and Margie’s dogged pursuit of technological advances ultimately produces catastrophic results. His innovations lead to the dismantling of governments, which in turn accelerates the climate crisis in what will become known as Hothouse Earth.
Vara has written a dynamic and disturbing world. The new international and corporate-run influencer empire, Shareholder Government, uses Social Capital as its primary currency. An all-knowing “Something” that employs a master algorithm, doles out punishments for misdeeds and extracts capital for services. The Blanklands, islands outside the jurisdiction of the Shareholder Government, serve as a home for opponents of technology who lead analog lives and reject the authority of the new order.
Vara deftly paints Rao, who has lived for more than a century, as an eccentric genius whose childhood memories shape his entrepreneurial spirit. He calls his computer Coconut, the exalted fruit of his family’s livelihood, and carries with him the words of his beloved paternal uncle, Chinna: “If you just make the world better than when you got here, that’s a good life.” Unfortunately, Rao seriously misunderstands “better”.
At its heart, “The Immortal King Rao” is a jarring and meticulous critique of how progress is often mistaken for goodness. Can a faster, more efficient and more precise technology achieve equality? Can the code find a way to deepen the connections of humans with each other? It is only in his twilight years that Rao begins to take responsibility for the disastrous circumstances he has brought about. But his solution, as always, lies in yet another new invention, one that can transfer memories between people.
The first recipient of his own memories is also the intrepid narrator of the book: Rao’s 17-year-old daughter, Athena. She was born to a surrogate mother when her father is in her 90s and unknowingly serves as his guinea pig. They live on Blake Island, where Rao, long exiled from the Shareholder Government, keeps the daughter’s existence a secret from him. Her childhood seems idyllic until, during adolescence, the horror of her father’s grievous sins comes into full focus.
Not long after Rao’s assassination, the shareholder government imprisons Athena. It is here that she presents her case to us, her audience (whom she addresses as “dear shareholder”), as if we were judge and jury. It’s a smart narrative choice on Vara’s part, but also a very effective one. Aren’t we all, as ardent believers in technology, equally complicit in its fate?