THE IMMORTAL KING RAO, by Vauhini Vara
The premise of Vauhini Vara’s debut novel, “The Immortal King Rao,” is as simple as could be: A young woman named Athena, raised in secret on an island in the Puget Sound by an aging father who has injected her with genetic code that allows her to access the entire internet and also all his memories, finds herself in a prison named after her mother, awaiting judgment by algorithm for a crime she insists 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 U.S. government, indeed 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 could be: A boy named King Rao is born into a large Dalit Indian family that has gained a foothold in the middle class through shrewd investment 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 turned lifestyle brand turned global superpower, eclipsing Gates, Jobs et al. After falling spectacularly from grace, King retreats to a small island where his daughter, Athena, plays Miranda to his Prospero: ward, caretaker, secret sharer. He hopes for a day when he might right the wrongs he committed, as well as those he feels were committed against him.
Once more, with feeling. The premise of “The Immortal King Rao” is as simple as could be: 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 deal with, so they don’t. The Shareholder Government continues to use Social Capital ratings to keep its Shareholders working, consuming and posting. Meanwhile, in the Blanklands — formally recognized autonomous zones outside of Shareholder control — people who call 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 toward their city on a hill, there’s a good chance that hill will be underwater.
At 370 pages, “Rao” is on the short side for a multigenerational family saga and sweeping social epic. (Not to mention the sci-fi stuff, though the novel is science-fictional only insofar as it involves some fictional science.) Measured spine to spine against, say, Jonathan Franzen’s “Corrections,” Mira Jacob’s “Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing” or Min Jin Lee’s “Pachinko” — to say nothing of older, baggier monsters like “A Suitable Boy” or “Independent People” — “Rao” might appear at first like a welterweight among heavies. Don’t be fooled.