At its heart, Vauhini Vara’s twisty, thoughtful debut novel, The Immortal King Rao, is a fascinating alternate history and eerily plausible imagined future of the internet—and the tech corporations that have shaped it. With a sureness to her prose and a sharp eye for the tiny details that shape human lives, Vara, who has worked as a Wall Street Journal technology reporter and as a business editor for The New Yorker, combines three distinct storylines into a genre-bending, kaleidoscopic spiral of a tale.
Though the entire novel is narrated by Athena, the 17-year-old daughter of the most successful tech genius the world has ever seen, it shifts among three timelines. In a small village in 1950s India, King Rao, who will eventually become the most powerful man in the world, longs for a sense of belonging while growing up on his Dalit family’s sprawling coconut plantation. In 1970s Seattle, newly arrived in the U.S. for graduate school, King invents the device that will change the world forever: the Coconut computer. And in some unspecified near-future, a single corporation holds sway over the world’s citizens, who are referred to as Shareholders, and an all-powerful Board of Directors has expanded to replace all world governments. Within this imagined future, Athena recounts the events that led to her being imprisoned for her father’s murder.
This future is effortlessly believable, with irreversible global warming known as “Hothouse Earth,” capitalism running rampant, an unstoppable megacorp similar to an Apple-Google hybrid, and a mysterious computer algorithm controlling all aspects of public and private life. Yet for all its brilliant scope, The Immortal King Rao is also an intimate character study, offering an unflinching, close-up look at the complicated bonds of families.
There are no simple relationships in this book, and few moral absolutes. King is a ruthless, larger-than-life genius, but he’s also a scared, confused kid, a doting father and a lonely 20-something adrift in an unfamiliar world. As Athena pores over her memories of King—and parses through his memoirs, gifted directly to her brain through his final invention—she begins to understand all of these interlocking and sometimes contradictory pieces of him. What emerges is a remarkably tender and continually unpredictable story about familial and romantic love, ambition and greed, alienation and revolution, and one man’s unquenchable desire to leave a lasting mark on the world.
Satirical and heartbreaking, packed with historical detail and flawless dystopian world building, The Immortal King Rao is a striking multigenerational epic that tackles—and offers a surprising answer to—that age-old question: What are we here for?