In the mid-1900s, a Dalit boy named King is born to coconut farmers in a rural Indian village; over a century later, his daughter is accused of his murder as a society built upon his inventions hurtles toward climate catastrophe. In The Immortal King Rao, author Vauhini Vara weaves a fascinating narrative filling in what transpires between these two moments in time. Vara plunges us into a near-future where modern day anxieties are pushed to an extreme, using this Dalit entrepreneur’s story to explore how technological progress can lead to disaster in this formidable debut.
Protagonist Athena is the daughter of the eponymous King Rao, and relives his memories while awaiting trial for his murder. This complex framing device allows her to nimbly jump between King’s upbringing on the coconut farm, his big breaks in Seattle as he founded his tech company Coconut, and the time he spends in exile with his daughter on an island off the coast of Washington. Through these flashbacks, King’s inventions, relationships, and business ventures which led to a corporate-run world order are slowly revealed.
As with much dystopian fiction, what makes certain parts of the book so disconcerting is its closeness to our present-day reality. Vara has been chronicling the world’s transition into “late stage capitalism” for decades as a tech journalist for the Wall Street Journal. Her expertise shows in how precisely she is able to capture the potential dystopic future we could plausibly be heading towards with existing technology.
At times, the story borders on satire, but rather than leaning into humor, it amplifies unease. In King Rao’s world, major decisions are made on behalf of individuals using the “Master Algorithm,” or “Algo” which makes seemingly accurate predictions based on people’s “Social Profiles” and ever-evolving levels of social capital. Vara’s world-building is perhaps most successful as it expands upon these details, pushing our anxieties just far enough that they might be considered extreme, but not outside the realm of possibility.
Here, rampant global warming has made human life on Earth viable for only a few more generations, and catalyzes life-changing decisions for characters throughout the novel. The ambient concerns we live with every day are heightened to the extent that they define society on an existential level, and Vara successfully crafts this background in a startlingly convincing way.
While the world-building is meticulous and clear, the interpersonal relationships are not quite fleshed out to the same extent. We gain interesting, innovative context around King’s childhood, coming from a Dalit family which inherited the name and business of a Brahmin household through a series of intriguing events, but lack insight into the way these identities and experiences inform the characters from an emotional standpoint. King’s character is understood as almost apolitical, more invested in entrepreneurship and “progress” through technology than revolution within power systems, a point of tension between him and Athena. When questioned about the increasingly unjust world by his daughter, King remarks that the current order is merely “an empire, and empires fall…that process doesn’t need anyone’s help.” While we see King’s life story through his memories, we don’t get the nuanced understanding of his internal developments which one might be expecting.
Overall, Vara’s focus is much more plot-driven than character-driven. An effective story that still may leave some readers wanting.