A dystopia that reflects reality
Writers who create new worlds lead you there through the proverbial Narnian cabinets. Suddenly you are in a different world; the outlines may look vaguely familiar, but the rest of the world is exciting and new. Vauhini Vara’s ‘The Immortal King Rao’ does just that. It’s speculative fiction, but the new dystopian world that Vara draws seems to be drawn from an ongoing or impending reality.
The book covers so many things and it does so across different timelines. The central character is King Rao, named after an Anglophile uncle. Part of the story traces the growth and eventual disintegration of Rao’s Dalit family of coconut farmers in the village of Kothapalli. Another part deals with the life of King Rao from his humble beginnings as an immigrant to the United States to his rise and eventual fall. Then there’s the part of a dystopian new world in which the lives of King Rao and his daughter Athena unfold. The plot is intricate, the story deftly moves between different timelines all woven masterfully, and the pacing is propulsive.
The growth of Rao’s family mirrors his own in the United States. Both trajectories are propelled by ambition and a desire to leave humble circumstances behind. And of course, the surname “Rao” is adopted by the Dalit family for pragmatic reasons since a Brahmin surname would be good for business.
The crushing of a dream
However, it is technology that helps King Rao soar to dizzying heights. His genius lies in creating products that the world quickly becomes addicted to. In describing these products, Vara cleverly combines the familiar with the imaginary. Some like “the Harmonica,” which attempts to introduce artificial intelligence into the human brain, are an imaginative feat of fantasy, and Vara’s writing makes it seem like a real possibility. The explosion of technology combined with unbridled capitalism, the famous motto of tech entrepreneurs to go fast and smash things, the repercussions of such disruption in real terms and backsliding, all create the framework for how the King Rao’s story takes place in the United States. He’s both Steve Jobs and Sundar Pichai combined. And inevitably, even as King Rao’s reach outgrows his reach, his immigrant dream crumbles. In the current part of the book, the new world is populated by Exes. They chose to move away from the inequitable, technology-driven world and settled in seemingly off-the-grid islands, trying to live a sustainable life under the utopian principles of peace and brotherhood. They strive to live their lives by practicing Marx’s famous slogan: from each according to his ability, to each according to his need. The journey of Athena and King Rao is followed in this world. It is here that Athena grows up, and it is here that King Rao meets his end.
A grim world
The delimitation of this world is done in an exciting and imaginative way. The division of the world between the Shareholders and the Ex, their different lifestyles, both in terms of physical space and their mentality, the small details that make up their world, the sharp observations of a dark world dominated by algorithms …the author draws you into this world, making you feel as troubled as the exes about the stockholders’ Nero ruthless attitude to the destruction of the world.
In a book teeming with characters, it is to the author’s credit that most are drawn with defining features. Here, character is fate. The touching relationship between father and daughter shines through even as it is set in the nightmare of the grim world in which they live.
Many things are explored in this book, such as caste, race, politics, capitalism, technology and the impact of all of this on human lives. People like Czech President Havel and Russian anarchist Bakunin are cited.
There is a story about the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi, there is another about Thomas Edison. There’s a lot Vara wants to tell us and it all fits easily into the story with a wide arc. We are left to ponder questions such as: why is the human race so oblivious to its own mortality? Why do we keep wanting to know why we are here? Does ambition invariably result in greed?
There’s a great skill at work here in drawing worlds, real and imagined, incorporating technology and philosophy, while keeping human relationships at the heart of the story. Simply put, this is an amazing start.