Vauhini Vara’s unsparing, intrepid epic The Immortal King Rao whirls through a future in which social media has utterly transformed our political systems. Framed by a Thomas Piketty epigraph, the book unspools a dazzling skein of what could follow from the economist’s claim that postcapitalism, humans will need to figure out how to rework the nation-state.
Told in a dizzying rush by King Rao’s daughter, Athena, narrating from prison, the saga is addressed to a shareholder of the megacorporation that governs what used to be nation-states. Raised alone in secret on an island in Puget Sound by her entrepreneur father, Athena can directly access his memories and the internet through an invention of his implanted in her brain. She chronicles the rise and fall of the titular Dalit tech mogul, along with the life she led as a result of his choices.
As this unsentimental fable envisions it, social technologies that reshape how we relate to one another place pressure on nation-states. King unwittingly embeds the AI he creates with the social stratification and oppressive power dynamics from which his family, and he, escaped during the reign of capitalism. A group of radicals, the Exes, splinters off from the globalized society newly organized according to social capital and starts its own anarchic community, refusing to participate in a system that commodifies and exploits consciousness. As King realizes his ambitions, his marriage to his socially brilliant but underestimated white wife breaks, and so, too, does the world order their company wrought.
The book pushes past novelistic and intellectual frontiers, as disruptive of traditional storytelling strategies as innovators of the tech world are of traditional social strategies. But in so doing, the novel forges a new mythos around the West, not only the coast but also as pitted against the Global South. Vara builds on her years as a technology reporter and synthesizes political philosophies drawn from disparate sources—feminism, anarchism, Victorian novels, and Battlestar Galactica. Athena’s natural cadences contrast with subtly ironic and irreverent wordplay and satire—“mogul” comes from Mughal, rulers of India for centuries prior to British conquest, and “Coconut,” the name of King’s fictional company, echoes “Apple” but also calls to mind a dated insult that implies someone is “brown on the outside, white on the inside.” Vara abandons reader conquest and moral didacticism in service of more curious questions of the soul: What are the long-term consequences for making meaning of our lives if our technologies radically transform who we are to one another?
Perhaps, Vara insinuates, the desire for invention and the pain of this desire, too, are eternal aspects of the human condition. The desire and pain wear various guises in different cultures and historical epochs but travel with us: wherever we go, there we are. Vara’s pages are a phenomenal high-wire act through the beautiful and distressing and horrifying inferno our society is only beginning to engage. While other novels have tackled themes dealing with technology, they haven’t achieved the originality and profound depth of this one. Aiming at the fiercely intelligent reader, The Immortal King Rao is a masterpiece.
One More Thing: A novel for the people of Southern California
Is Susan Straight’s eighth book of fiction, Mecca, the Great Southern Californian Novel? There’s certainly a case that could be made. Moving back and forth between protagonists, the polyphonic book portrays the region not as it’s seen by others but as it really is. Writing about the freeways and the Santa Anas, the Coachella Valley and the Inland Empire, Straight remains uninterested in myths and stereotypes, focusing instead on living, breathing characters for whom the sun and glamour of the Southland are just another set of lies.•