King Rao is neither a king nor a Rao – the latter is a popular surname in the Telugu state of India, and the importance of a surname need not be explained to the people of subcontinent. King Rao’s grandfather, a Dalit landowner, adapted the name to be able to smoothen his business prospects as a coconut farmer. He built his family home and coconut empire on his land, which he acquired from his owner; why? It is another story of not much consequence in the larger scheme of things.
The Immortal King Rao is the debut novel of Vauhini Vara, who worked as Wall Street Journal technology reporter, and as the business editor for The New Yorker. And, her book begins with King Rao leaving this world as the most influential person to have ever lived. A dalit from a remote village in south India, who studies hard, travels to the US for higher education, marries a young woman who shares his passion to do big in the world, and eventually grows to the top of one of the earliest computer companies, which eventually ends by being the most valuable corporation. The Coconut Corporation that builds one of the first computers would have a lot of prominence in what would be a Shareholder government. And, it is again King Rao who is behind this change from Nation-State.
And his story is narrated by his daughter, who is a surrogate child with the power to connect to internet through the mind’s eye, which he christened as a Clarinet — the ability acquired due to a genetic code —‘Harmonica’ induced into the blood stream. Athena, the daughter is imprisoned in a cell and is accused of murder — and the Algo (short for algorithm) would decide her fate based on a social profile, which is non-existent. King Rao kept Athena’s existence a secret, for obvious reasons — he has successfully tried the genetic code on his surrogate daughter — a program that was declared a failure.
And it is she who reveals that King Rao has engineered the transition of the world to Shareholder government, where citizens collectively own corporations. And it is guided by Master Algorithm. It is this Algo that uses social profiles to decide the social capital, the amount of food, water, energy, even education, hospitals and criminal justice for citizens. A system developed to end corruption and ruin, which ironically ends in chaos and Hothouse Earth.
Does it all ring any bells. Sure, it does — on many levels.
Part personal history, part speculative fiction, dystopian and realist — all woven into one story — Vauhini Vara seems to have used her knowledge of technology and the business world to recreate a scenario — where earth is heading towards extinction, and the world is moving towards ruin, despite being controlled by a computer algorithm meant to make things better.
In the novel, ironically, King Rao is expelled from power by the same Algo that he had built.
He moves away from the main land, chooses one of the islands -to build a house and do his experiments. It is here that he watches his daughter grow up, who connects to the world through internet. What happens to King Rao, who decides to inject the clarinet to himself. And, what makes Athena move away from Blake Island — is more or less the rest of the story.
However, as you read through the book, going over Athena’s experiences personally and those she has gathered thanks to the clarinet, you discover a world that feels increasingly similar to yours on many instances, where one is gradually but surely losing control over their lives, as knowingly and unconsciously we are beginning to respond to computer codes and algorithms, where there are corporations that are indeed holding way too much power, and capital is proportionate to influence. Vauhini’s Coconut Corporation and Shareholder’s government are ominously referrable. This dystopian aspect of the novel is one of the reasons you turn the pages wanting to know more. Yet another reason is the eloquence of the prose, that is a compelling read despite the complexity of the narrative style.
In short Vauhini Vara’s The Immortal King Rao is an impressive debut novel.
The Immortal King Rao
By Vauhini Vara
pp. 374, Rs.699