King Rao is born, so his relatives whisper, under a bad star. His mother, Radha, becomes pregnant as the result of rape, then dies in childbirth. The baby is left in the care of her sister, Sita, who is also forced to take on the burden of Radha’s no-good husband. “A big name for a little runt,” Sita’s in-laws mock when she insists on naming the boy King. “He has strong bones,” Sita retorts. “He has a regal lip … He’ll live up to it.”
The Raos, from the beginning, are a divided family. Through hard work and prudent planning, their patriarch, Grandfather Rao, is able to inherit the cultivation rights to a productive coconut plantation from its former Brahmin owners. Their Dalit origins pushed aside, the Raos’ fortunes appear to be flourishing.Sita never doubts that her nephew will come to something. She secures the best education for King. She also warns him to steer clear of those members of the extended family she castigates as freeloaders, benefiting from Grandfather Rao’s careful husbandry of the plantation while contributing nothing in return.
In time, his aptitude for computer programming takes him to the US, where he is destined to be in the vanguard of the digital revolution. For a time, King lives up to his name in ways not even his adoptive mother could have predicted. But no reign lasts for ever, and when King’s downfall finally comes it is irrevocable.
Vauhini Vara’s debut novel is formed of three alternating narratives: King’s origins and childhood on an Indian coconut plantation known as the Garden; his arrival in America and meteoric rise to prominence as the head of the world-redefining Coconut Computer Corporation; and the shadowy aftermath of his fall, where he lives out his life in hiding on a deserted island. The story is narrated by King’s daughter, Athena, who, like King, grows up without a mother and possesses an uncanny kinship with advanced technology. Athena’s account is framed as a confession, made while in prison for a crime that should have been impossible.
Much of the success of a multistranded narrative will depend on how well it is characterised. Readers will follow a writer into the strangest and most challenging of territories, so long as the narrative pulse is sufficiently strong. Characters do not need to be likable as much as believable, and my chief frustration with The Immortal King Rao is that it has the uncomfortable feeling of three novels crammed into one.
The sections set in India form a classic Bildungsroman, a rags-to-riches story that, more fully fleshed out, might have been sufficiently interesting in its own right. The Garden scenes, with their earthy vitality and vivid sense of place, are undoubtedly the most fully achieved parts of the novel, yet with the exception of one decisive, violent incident revealed towards the end, the events and characters that populate King’s childhood are largely background material, and the issues they illustrate – the misunderstandings and inequalities wrought by class difference and cultural alienation – could have been conveyed with greater economy.
The central concerns of Vara’s novel – the digital revolution and the rise of big data – feel poorly served by comparison. King’s patrons in America, Elbert Norman and his daughter Margie, later King’s wife, have the kind of uneasy, jealous relationship ideal for generating narrative tension and offering a clearer insight into the characters, yet on the page they seem sketchy. The irascible and self-obsessed Elbert soon disappears from the action, while Margie fades into the background with little to distinguish her save the tacit understanding that she is a gifted businesswoman.
There is no interiority. Instead, we are told things. If there is an inciting moment for King’s genius, it is never revealed. His gift for coding, like Margie’s business acumen, is simply there, offered to us as a motivator with little in the way of psychological underpinning to give it substance.
The most interesting material relating to the birth of the computer age and its effect on our political culture is delivered in pages-long chunks of exposition, facts poured on to the page with nothing in the way of personal commentary or original insight to bring them to life. King and Margie Rao are clearly intended as analogues of real-life figures such as Steve Jobs and Bill and Melinda Gates – for Coconut, read Apple – and their pre-defined place in the scheme of things makes them seem even less interesting as characters: two-dimensional vehicles for a succession of ideas that feel underexploited. King’s Indian background and racial identity are quickly subsumed in his determination to become a world leader in his field. His disinclination to introduce Margie to his family or to communicate with Sita, who yearns for news of him, hint at a complex relationship with his past that is left tantalisingly underexplored.
Athena’s story, which takes place after the collapse of Coconut, sees the world divided into an unthinking majority of “Shareholders” – those who exchange their personal privacy for material comfort – and a small minority of self-righteous “Exes” who reject the corporate algorithm and live impoverished lives of exile as a result. The kind of underwritten dystopia with bolted-on climate change in which we sleepwalk towards our doom through buying too much stuff has become increasingly overfamiliar. Examining ideas and concepts precisely at the point where they threaten to become lived reality is and always has been what science fiction does best. Novels such as Jennifer Egan’s most recent work, The Candy House, and Martin MacInnes’s 2020 Gathering Evidence in particular offer powerful and nuanced critiques of surveillance capitalism. The Immortal King Rao feels weak and somewhat derivative by comparison. Had the author chosen to avoid the well-trodden pathways of the genre and focused more tightly on her novel’s significant points of difference, the results would surely have been more compelling, more revelatory and more insightful.
Vara’s ambition is clear and should be lauded. In those moments where her imagination takes flight – King’s first, poverty-stricken weeks in America, Margie’s belated journey to her new husband’s homeland – we glimpse an inspired literary sensibility at work. Unfortunately, The Immortal King Rao suffers from trying to take on too many ideas at once, with the novel’s sense of identity inevitably weakened as a result.