In ‘The Immortal King Rao,’ an ambitious inventor leaves behind a disturbing legacy

book review

King Rao in Vauhini Vara’s gripping 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 eldest son of an eldest son to believe in his inherent greatness. In 1974, as a graduate computer science student, Rao moved to Puget Sound, where he met and later married Margie, an equally curious and passionate activist. Together they design a personal computer, one of the first of its kind.

Decades later, nationalism and a pandemic are sweeping the world and further destabilizing nations. Rao and Margie’s dogged pursuit of technological progress ultimately 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 wrote a dynamic and haunting world. The new international and corporate-run influencer empire, Shareholder Government, uses social capital as its primary currency. An omniscient “Algo”, using a master algorithm, distributes punishments for misdeeds and extracts capital for services. The Blanklands, islands beyond the jurisdiction of the shareholders’ government, are home to anti-tech resisters who lead analog lives and reject the authority of the new order.

Vara skillfully portrays Rao, who has lived 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 breadwinner, and takes with him the words of his beloved paternal uncle, Chinna: “If you make the world a better place than when you came here, it’s a beautiful life. Unfortunately, Rao misinterprets “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 equality? Can code find a way to deepen the bonds between humans? It is only in his twilight years that Rao begins to hold himself accountable for the disastrous circumstances he has caused. But his solution, as always, lies in another new invention, capable of transferring 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 was born to a surrogate mother when her father was over 90 years old and unknowingly serves as her guinea pig. They live on Blake Island where Rao, long exiled from the shareholders’ government, keeps his daughter’s existence a secret. His childhood seems idyllic until, as a teenager, the horror of his father’s grave sins comes into full play.

Shortly after Rao’s murder, the shareholders’ government imprisons Athena. This is where she makes her case to us, her audience (to whom she addresses herself as a “dear shareholder”), as if we were both judge and party. It’s a clever narrative choice on Vara’s part, but also a very effective one. For aren’t we all, as staunch supporters of technology, equally complicit in its fate?

FICTION

“The Immortal King Rao: A Novel”

Vauhini Vara, WW Norton & Company, 384 pages, $27.95

About Armand Downs

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