THE IMMORTAL KING RAO, by Vauhini Vara
The premise of Vauhini Vara’s debut novel, “The Immortal King Rao,” is as simple as it gets: a young woman named Athena, raised secretly on an island in the Puget Sound by an elderly father who injected her with genetic code that gives her access to the entire internet and also to all his memories, is in a prison named after her mother, awaiting the judgment of an algorithm for a crime she believes she did not commit. While she waits, she writes a lengthy self-defense addressed to the shareholders of the mega-corporation that has replaced the US government, yes all governments, just as ‘shareholder’ with a capital ‘s’ has replaced the word ‘citizen’.
Let me try that again. The premise of “The Immortal King Rao” is as simple as it gets: a boy named King Rao is born into a large Dalit Indian family that has gained a foothold in the middle class through clever investments in a coconut farm. King is sent to study engineering in the United States, where he becomes the lead programmer and public face of an early computer company that became a lifestyle brand that became a global superpower, overshadowing Gates, Jobs et al. After spectacularly falling from grace, King retreats to a small island where his daughter, Athena, plays Miranda against his Prospero: a guardian, caretaker, secret partner. He hopes one day when he can right the wrongs he’s made, and the wrongs he thinks they’ve been made against him.
Again, with feeling. The premise of “The Immortal King Rao” is as simple as it gets: a phenomenon called Hothouse Earth, the endgame of climate collapse, is gradually extinguishing human civilization and probably all life on the planet. But this idea is too big and scary for anyone to handle, so they don’t. The Shareholders’ Government continues to use Social Capital ratings to keep its Shareholders working, consuming and posting. Meanwhile, in the Blanklands – formally recognized autonomous zones outside the control of the Shareholders – people calling themselves Exes have achieved something like functional anarcho-communism à la Proudhon’s workers’ collectives. The exes believe that as the contradictions inherent in the shareholder system become harder to ignore, more people will embrace their model. Unfortunately, by the time everyone turns up a hill to their town, there’s a good chance that hill will be flooded.
At 370 pages, “Rao” is on the short side for a multi-generational family saga and a sweeping social epic. (Not to mention the sci-fi stuff, though the novel is only science fiction as far as any fictional science is concerned.) Backbone to backbone measured against, say, Jonathan Franzen’s”Corrections”, Mira Jacob’s “Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing” or Min Jin Lee’s “pachinko† † not to mention older, wider monsters like “A suitable boy” or “independent people† † “Rao” looks like a welterweight among the heavyweights at first. Do not be fooled.