King Rao in Vauhini Vara’s thrilling debut novel, “The Immortal King Rao,” is not 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 keen striver. Together, they design a personal computer, one of the first of its kind.
Decades later, nationalism and a pandemic sweep the globe and further destabilize nations. Rao and Margie’s dogged pursuit of technological advancement eventually yields catastrophic results. Their innovations lead to the dismantling of governments, which in turn accelerate the climate crisis on what will come to be known as Hothouse Earth.
Vara has penned a dynamic and haunting world. The new international and corporate-run influencer empire, Shareholder Government, utilizes Social Capital as its main currency. An all-knowing “Algo,” employing a master algorithm, doles out punishments for misdeeds and extracts Capital for services. The Blanklands, islands outside of Shareholder Government’s jurisdiction, serve as the home to anti-tech resisters who lead analog lives and reject the new order’s authority.
Vara deftly paints Rao, who lives for more than a century, as an eccentric genius whose childhood memories shape his entrepreneurial spirit. He names 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 badly misconstrues “better.”
At its heart, “The Immortal King Rao” is a jarring and meticulous critique of how progress is often confused with goodness. Can faster, more efficient and more accurate technology bring about equality? Can code find a way to deepen humans’ connections to one another? It is only in his twilight years that Rao begins to hold himself accountable for the disastrous circumstances he has wrought. 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 book’s fearless narrator — Rao’s 17-year-old daughter, Athena. She is born to a surrogate when her father is in his 90s and serves, unknowingly, as his guinea pig. They live on Blake Island where Rao, long exiled from Shareholder Government, keeps his daughter’s existence a secret. Her childhood seems idyllic until, during adolescence, the horror of her father’s grievous sins fully come into focus.
Not long after Rao is murdered, Shareholder Government imprisons Athena. It is here where she makes her case to us, her audience (who she addresses as “dear Shareholder”), as if we are both judge and jury. It is a clever narrative choice on Vara’s part, but also, highly effective. For aren’t we all, as fervent believers in technology, equally complicit in her fate?