Social media is a topic ripe for storytelling, and anyone who has spent more than a few minutes on a site like Twitter can understand why they often contain at least an undercurrent dystopia even when that is not precisely the genre the author is working in. I have generally enjoyed the novels I have read in this space, including The Start-up Wife and Fake Accounts, both of which came out last year, but I found neither one of them as strong as The Immortal King Rao. Perhaps because Vahini Vara steers harder into our impeding globally-warmed, algorithmic dystopia.
The three timelines in The Immortal King Rao are each narrated by Athena Rao, King’s daughter who has an illicit piece of technology he developed that allows her access to his memories. King Rao died three days ago. Athena is being interrogated.
The first story is that of King Rao as a child in Kothapalli, India, which we are told is the Telugu equivalent of “Newtown.” In 1951, King was born into a Dalit family that became marginally prosperous when they acquired The Grove from a Brahmin family no longer interested in living in this small town. This opportunity allowed Rao’s industrious grandfather to acquire land on which the extended family can operate a coconut growing and processing operation.
This is not to say that the world of The Grove is good. King is the child of a sexual assault, with his mother, Radha, marrying into the Rao family after his father, Pedda, assaulted her, and he is functionally raised by his aunt, Sita, who marries his father after the death of his mother. Likewise, the extended family is frequently dysfunctional, filled with bullies, gamblers, and layabouts, and the choices of the younger generations nearly drive the family to ruin. But it is also here that Rao first develops his understanding of social networks and interpersonal responsibility.
The second story chronologically follows Rao from his arrival in the United States (in Seattle) as an impoverished graduate student through the rise of Coconut, the company he starts with Margaret, the white daughter of his supervisor. Of the three, this is the arc I found least satisfactory, in large part because many of its beats simply fictionalize the growth of major tech companies like Apple and fold the rise of multiple companies into this one. This is arguably a necessary feature of a story that links this Dalit family in India to the dystopian future—after all, the best dystopias are built on the bones of reality—and Vara uses this story to explore the relationship between King and Margaret, but I also found it distinctly limiting, to say nothing of a little bit hand-wavy to get to where the entire world is beholden to the single tech giant Coconut and its “impartial” algorithm.
The third story is that of Athena herself, King’s progeny and greatest experiment. After his fall from grace at Coconut in c.2040, and after the death of Margaret (who was by now his ex-wife), King deactivated his Social, sailed to Blake Island, and set up a little isolated homestead. It was here that Athena, King and Margaret’s daughter by a surrogate mother living on nearby Bainbridge Island, grew up among the orchards of tropic fruits that King imported.
It is in this storyline that Vara imagines a dystopian vision of the future.
And then Hothouse Earth arrived. The wildfires that began in spring and lasted all summer; the droughts that were such old news that they no longer showed up in headlines; each new pandemic beginning just after the previous one was under control.
King’s grand triumph was the creation of a unitary world government enabled by the global reliance on Coconut technology. King creates a new Constitution that is, functionally, techno-socialism. All citizens become Shareholders who collectively own all corporations, all major decisions—from criminal justice to the global curriculum—determined by the Master Algorithm. Instead of money, individual worth would be measured by the “Social Capital” of an individual, as determined by Algo based on one’s intelligence, beauty, and productive value. In short, everyone is an influencer, and since a portion of their Social Capital is “extracted” monthly in lieu of taxation there is an incentive to continue to engage with the platform.
Of course, algorithms are only as good as their inputs.
The truth was that a person’s Social Capital depended almost entirely on the privilege they were broth with, not any effort of their own.
The prior richness of the rich and the poorness of the poor had been grandfathered in the Shareholding system.
Algo didn’t eliminate the existing ills of society, it merely put them behind a veneer of impartiality. If you disagree with this system, your only choice is to opt-out by becoming an “ex” on one of a few designated “Blanklands” that are off the Social. There you could scratch out a living through farming and illicit trade in drugs, sex, and surrogate pregnancy, and the Shareholders didn’t have to deal with your opposition to progress or listen to your doom-filled prognostications about the future.
If the rise of Coconut was the weakest part of The Immortal King Rao for me, the moment when teenaged Athena decides to abandon her father in favor of life among the Exes, scratching out a living on Bainbridge Island, I found the strongest. In addition to meeting a new cast of characters like Elemen, one of the original Exes, this society reveals to Athena nature of the world that her father created. This world might have been designed to bring people closer together in an efficient manner, but ended up breeding disillusion and complacency while the world burned. Opting out might have been the right move, but it condemned the rest of society in the process.
There were parts of The Immortal King Rao that required suspension of disbelief and much of both the optimism about technology and its consequences felt distinctly American, even though a third of the novel is set in India. And yet, I find that the most chilling dystopias are the ones that cut closest to the truth. The idea of a technocratic single world state might be implausible, but a world ostensibly guided by “impartial” algorithms that aren’t impartial, where every job is rebranded with corporate babble (“history teachers” are now “Progress Leaders”), where everyone’s worth is measured in social media clout, and where the next great advance merely replicates the existing social order very much is not.
I recently finished Yōko Ogawa’s The Memory Police and am now reading James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain.