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The Immortal King Rao: An Audacious, Dizzying History of a Dystopia

In Vauhini Vara’s epic first novel, one man’s genius and ambition have global consequences.

The Immortal King Rao

Inventors. Moguls. Unscrupulous CEOs. We are fascinated by the icons of tech who have shaped our world, for better or for worse.

Take Elon Musk, for example. The Tesla and SpaceX CEO recently purchased Twitter, a controversial move that led to derision via his newly-acquired platform, plus renewed debates about his ethics, his tech, his childhood in apartheid-era South Africa, and his romantic life. (As of May 13th, Musk's Twitter takeover is now on hold.)

Or there’s disgraced Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes. Her rise and fall was dramatized in the 2022 TV series The Dropout, the same month real-life Holmes was found guilty on four counts of fraud

It’s tempting to say that our collective fascination with powerful figures like these will lead to a focus on ethics over innovation, or a push to better understand the long-term risks and rewards of new tech. But this would require uncoupling with capitalism. It’s probably more accurate to say that people are just drawn to a good story, and larger-than-life, controversial figures like Musk and Holmes make compelling subjects.

All this is to say that the time is ripe for the release of The Immortal King Rao, the debut novel from tech reporter Vauhini Vara. 

The genre-bending book tracks the origins of the titular character, an inventor who transforms global politics and the planet’s climate. In the world of the novel, Rao—like Musk—is an icon. The book humanizes him, and shows the implications of his innovations and the capitalism under which he rose to prominence.

A singular, expansive work, The Immortal King Rao begins in India in 1951, and initially follows two sisters who are part of the Dalit caste. When the eldest sister dies in childbirth, her son is named ‘King Rao’ to refute those who would see the new baby as misfortunate. He eventually grows into his name. 

Rao immigrates to America in the 80s, where he becomes the divisive co-creator of the ‘Coconut’ computer and the founder of the global Shareholder Government. This corporation-driven world order is organized by an algorithm of Rao’s design. Ultimately, though, his own code turns against him. 

The story weaves through history and across the globe, leaps that are surprising but not disorienting. It’s both a multigenerational family saga and near-future dystopian sci-fi. 

Readers are confronted directly in the parts of the story set in near-future America. These sections are told from the point of view of Athena, Rao’s 17-year-old daughter, who calls out readers as “shareholders.” She appeals to us to appreciate the enormous complexity of Rao as a man and a mogul—and to find her innocent of his murder. 

When Rao was in his 90s, he raised Athena alone on a remote island in Washington State. This was before the impact of Hothouse Earth (the term used in the novel for climate change) was really felt in the Pacific Northwest. Rao encouraged Athena’s fascination with the natural world and their island domain. He also encouraged her to consider what it meant that she could literally see his memories. 

Ultimately, Athena is Rao’s greatest and most controversial invention. But now King Rao is dead, and she’s in jail for his murder.

Vauhini Vara is uniquely qualified to write a novel about divisive tech giants. Vara is an O. Henry Award winner, a graduate of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and previously worked as a tech reporter for publications like The Wall Street Journal. She’s also the former business editor for The New Yorker.

When asked by The Portalist how her work as a tech and business reporter informed worldbuilding in The Immortal King Rao, Vara explained that by the time she began drafting the novel, she had already met Rao-like moguls in real life. These included figures like Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg, and Larry Ellison, co-founder of the Oracle Corporation. (Ellison was also one of the investors in Holmes’ Theranos.)

Vara explained over email, 

“I was fascinated with [tech CEOs] as individuals and interested, too, in the ways in which they were constrained — like anyone — by the systems in which they operated. This was a dynamic I wanted to explore in the novel, and my experience writing about these men, and knowing them somewhat, helped. Over the many years that I wrote the novel, I also took advantage of my work as a journalist to do research. 

“I wrote an article for Fortune, for example, profiling a Canadian AI company called Element AI. I did this because I was genuinely interested in the company; it also gave me an excuse, though, to ask people at the highest levels in the AI industry about their work and its place in society — which of course informed the novel.”

Athena’s perspective on Rao, as both her beloved father and the man who shaped the system she’s now imprisoned by, feels essential to The Immortal King Rao. But Vara says this part of the story only revealed itself once she began writing. 

At first, it was a novel about a precocious Dalit boy on a coconut grove in South India, King Rao, who grows up to start a major US tech company. As I continued to write, I realized that the novel needed to be about much more than that. Athena — the narrator of the novel and King Rao's daughter, who is telling the story from some point in a nearish, dystopian future — emerged quite late in the writing process. Early on, she was just a disembodied voice telling the story; it took me a long time to understand who exactly she was.”

Who Athena is—a daughter literally programmed with her father’s memories—feels like the linchpin of The Immortal King Rao. She’s both an invention herself, and a young person who has inherited and must live through the climate disaster her father helped sow.

The Portalist asked Vara whether she believes speculative fiction can frighten readers into fighting against the sort of dystopian futures it predicts, such as Hothouse Earth. 

Although Vara says she’s “sure it can,” for her, that’s also beside the point: “The question isn't too important to me, as a writer; for me, there's great value in fiction for its own sake. I think it's generally a mistake to write fiction with a goal in mind — political or social or otherwise — beyond simply creating the fiction.”

As “fiction for its own sake,” Immortal King Rao is a staggering achievement, reminiscent almost of Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude in its pace, its exploration of familial and political history, and its sheer, audacious breadth. 

Whether you’re interested in the motivations and machinations of real-life CEOs or not, this impressive first novel compels as a story first and foremost. It’s a novel that appreciates humanity’s capacity for both hubris and love–and also reflects the future unfolding around us. 

Download The Immortal King Rao today!

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