Vauhini Vara’s Immortal King Rao review – the rise and fall of a tech giant | Fiction

King Rao was born, his relatives whisper, under an unlucky star. Her mother, Radha, becomes pregnant following a rape, then dies in childbirth. The baby is left in the care of her sister, Sita, who is also forced to take on the burden of Radha’s evil husband. “A big name for a little runt,” Sita’s in-laws mock when she insists on naming the boy King. “He has strong bones,” Sita retorts. “He’s got a royal lip…He’ll be up to it.”

The Raos, from the start, have been a divided family. Through hard work and careful planning, their patriarch, Grandfather Rao, is able to inherit the cultivation rights of a productive coconut plantation from its former Brahmin owners. Their Dalit origins aside, the Raos’ fortunes seem to be flourishing. Sita never doubts that her nephew will come up with something. She provides the best education for King. She also warns him to steer clear of extended family members whom she castigates as profiteers, benefiting from Grandpa Rao’s careful management of the plantation with nothing in return.

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In time, his abilities for computer programming took him to the United States, where he was destined to be at the forefront of the digital revolution. For a time, King lives up to his name in ways that even his adoptive mother couldn’t have foreseen. But no reign lasts forever, and when King’s downfall finally comes, it’s irrevocable.

Vauhini Vara’s first novel is made up of three alternating tales: King’s origins and childhood in an Indian coconut grove known as the Garden; his arrival in America and his meteoric rise to lead the world-redefining Coconut Computer Corporation; and the dark aftermath of his fall, where he spends his life hidden on a desert island. The story is told by King’s daughter, Athena, who, like King, grows up without a mother and has an uncanny kinship with advanced technology. Athena’s story is presented as a confession, made in prison for a crime that should have been impossible.

Much of the success of a multi-pronged narrative will depend on the quality of its characterization. Readers will follow a writer into the weirdest and most difficult territories, as long as the narrative impulse is strong enough. The characters don’t have to be so likable as they are believable, and my main frustration with The Immortal King Rao is that it has the uncomfortable feeling of three novels crammed into one.

The sections set in India form a classic Bildungsroman, a rags-to-riches story that, if fleshed out, might have been interesting enough on its own. The garden scenes, with their earthly vitality and strong sense of place, are undoubtedly the most finished parts of the novel, but with the exception of a decisive and violent incident revealed towards the end, the events and characters that populate King’s childhood are largely The reference documents and the issues they illustrate – the misunderstandings and inequalities engendered by class difference and cultural alienation – could have been conveyed with more economy.

The central concerns of Vara’s novel — the digital revolution and the rise of big data — seem ill-served by comparison. King’s bosses in America, Elbert Norman and his daughter Margie, later King’s wife, have the kind of difficult and jealous relationship ideal for generating narrative tension and providing clearer insight into the characters, but on the page, they seem sketchy. Elbert, short-tempered and self-obsessed, quickly disappears from the action, while Margie fades away with little to set her apart except the unspoken understanding that she’s a gifted businesswoman.

There is no interiority. Instead, we are told things. If there is an empowering moment for King’s genius, it is never revealed. His gift for coding, like Margie’s business acumen, is just there, offered to us as a motivator with little psychological underpinning to give it substance.

The most interesting material relating to the birth of the computer age and its effect on our political culture is delivered in several pages of exposition, facts poured onto the page without any personal commentary or original insight to bring them to life. . King and Margie Rao are clearly designed as analogues of real-life characters such as Steve Jobs and Bill and Melinda Gates – for Coconut, read Apple – and their predefined place in the scheme of things makes them even less interesting as characters: two-dimensional vehicles for a succession of ideas that seem under-exploited. King’s Indian origins and racial identity are quickly subsumed in his determination to become a world leader in his field. His reluctance to introduce Margie to her family or communicate with Sita, who longs to hear from her, hints at a complex relationship with her past that remains woefully underexplored.

Set after Coconut’s collapse, Athena’s story sees the world divided into a thoughtless majority of “stockholders” – those who trade their privacy for material comforts – and a small minority of “Exes”. “do-gooders who reject the business. algorithm and live impoverished lives of exile as a result. The kind of underwritten dystopia with bolted-on climate change in which we sleepwalk toward our destiny by buying too many things has become all too familiar. Examining ideas and concepts precisely to the point where they threaten to become lived reality is and always has been what science fiction does best. Novels such as Jennifer Egan’s most recent work, The Candy House, and Martin MacInnes’ 2020 Gathering Evidence, in particular, offer powerful and nuanced critiques of surveillance capitalism. Immortal King Rao feels weak and somewhat derivative in comparison. If the author had chosen to avoid the beaten path of the genre and focused more narrowly on the significant points of difference in his novel, the results would surely have been more compelling, more revealing, and more insightful.

Vara’s ambition is clear and should be applauded. In those moments when her imagination takes flight – King’s poor first weeks in America, Margie’s belated journey to her new husband’s homeland – we glimpse an inspired literary sensibility at work. Unfortunately, The Immortal King Rao suffers from trying to accept too many ideas at once, which inevitably weakens the novel’s sense of identity.

The Immortal King Rao is published by Atlantic (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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