On “The Immortal King Rao” by Vauhini Vara

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SPOTLING THE DIFFERENT uses of the coconut, 20th century farmer Frederic Rosengarten Jr. writes that “[e]”any part” of the harvest can be “used for certain human needs”. Citing the amount of protein found in the meat of a coconut, the versatility of its coir shell and fiber, and the approximate amount of wood provided by the trunk of its tree, Rosengarten concludes that “[o]one could live almost indefinitely on coconut products. Here, Rosengarten unwittingly links the long history of human-directed environmental extraction to the fantasy of living forever through nature’s infinite bounty – a fantasy that, as our current environmental crisis makes clear, is antithetical to global projects. unlimited like monoculture, mining, logging and drilling. At Vauhini Vara Immortal King Raothese realities clash by focusing on one resource: the coconut.

Athena, the 17-year-old narrator of Vara’s first novel, repeats content from Rosengarten’s book as she describes the childhood of her father, the titular King Rao. The memories of King Rao, as well as the text of Rosengarten The book of edible nuts, arrive at Athena’s conscious mind via an experimental technology called Harmonica, an injectable solution that fuses the recipient’s brain with the internet itself, allowing Athena to seamlessly search, condense and save information from the web into the elastic expanse of his own mind. Yet, as Vara’s novel reveals in its early chapters, Athena’s Harmonica also gained access to the full memory of her father. As old King Rao empties the contents of his life into his daughter’s consciousness, he also creates the conditions for Vara’s sprawling, cross-generational epic, which begins at Rao’s coconut plantation in rural Kothapalli. , in India. Imprisoned for a crime she did not commit, Athena is tasked with recounting not only the circumstances that led to her arrest, but also those that spawned her father’s rise to wealth, notoriety, and eventually , the restructuring of the governmental order. The story of how she fell into the hands of the police is not an isolated event; it’s part of the larger story of her father’s emigration and his role in engineering the very government that now holds her captive. Athena’s plea for freedom therefore involves not only an account of her father’s life and deeds, but also of strength relive his memories alongside his.

Immortal King Rao begins in an era of peak privatization: the government — first the United States, then the rest of the world — has been replaced by a board of directors. Using a divine algorithm, the board governs its shareholders (formerly citizens) by endowing them with social capital, a measure that represents both financial status and overall social “value”. As society reaches its technological and capitalist limits, so does the ecological disaster known as Hothouse Earth. This social overhaul grew out of King’s first invention, a personal computer he called the Coconut. Inspired by the endless usefulness of the harvest and aided by his wife Margaret’s keen instinct for business, King’s series of inventions (including the all-knowing Algorithm itself) are rapidly transcending their status as household goods. popular consumption; instead, they become the fabric of global economy, sociality and governance.

In this sense, the so-called immortal king Rao Is live “almost endlessly” on coconut products. As Athena recounts King’s rise to wealth and power, she also secretly reveals how King’s respect for his family harvest is entangled in a web of corporate and environmental destruction. Vara’s novel, which evokes a number of tropes in contemporary speculative fiction – the increasing interweaving of technology in our social and political lives, the rise of unfettered corporatization, our careening movement towards environmental apocalypse – places these consequences on a timeline that begins with a coconut plantation in southeastern India. Coconut farming, an enterprise emblematic of the deep history of imperial extraction and globalization, is central to Vara’s exploration of technology and capital.

Raised by her father on his secluded Bainbridge Island estate, Athena grew up surrounded by the vegetation of southeast India: Vara writes, “None of the plants in the Raos’ twenty magnificent gardens were native to the Pacific Northwest; they were all tropical flora, guava and coconut palms, multicolored flowers that practically sprang from their stems, like wax. On harbor cruises that circle Bainbridge Island – allowing tourists to raise their binoculars towards the famous estate – tour guides quiz their passengers on how such a feat could be possible in the rainy and cold surroundings of the Pacific Northwest. The correct answer provides a central theme in Immortal King Raowhich is the strained relationship between technological innovation and environmental destruction:

More often than not, a home and garden enthusiast on board would have the answer. King and Margaret Rao’s secret and private research organization, the Rao Project, had been tasked with coming up with genetically engineered seeds that produced tropical trees and plants capable of growing in cooler climates like Seattle’s. The group was also working on inserting edible vaccines into tropical fruits eaten by the world’s poor and creating climate-friendly products that could withstand rising temperatures.

Vara juxtaposes the image of the tropical wealth of the Rao estate with the desolate state of King’s family plantation in Kothapalli. Decades after King’s immigration to the United States, the once fruitful garden has become “a muddy, abandoned lot, strewn where it met the road with crushed pop cans, plastic bags soggy from the rain and cigarette butts”. Coconut palms, reduced to ‘flapping brown, brittle fronds’, line the stubby long houses that now have ‘the paint peeling off their walls, the thatch of their twin roofs heaving in the breeze and crumbling again’ . Despite the secret machinations of the Rao Project, King’s company was unable to save his former home, or the Global South in general, from environmental catastrophe.

Recounting one of King’s memories, Athena recounts a scene from her first year as CEO of shareholder government in which King “brought together a global consortium of experts to consider how science could be deployed to bring back the climate at historically normal conditions”. The “march to Hothouse Earth”, however, was already well underway, and the experts presented their report: nothing could be done to turn back the time of the destruction of the environment or, more bluntly, “you could not refreeze the Arctic”. Incredulous, Margaret leans in: Were these experts “really suggesting that humans have exhausted their potential for innovation – that if something hadn’t been invented yet, it never would be? While his wife remains determined to pursue technological solutions to climate change, King changes course. He seriously begins to invent the harmonica, describing it as “the only chance for humanity to have a future”. “With the arrival of Hothouse Earth,” King explains, “we had to think about how to keep track of who we were.” It is telling that King’s final accomplishment is only the preservation of who he was, allowing Vara to metonymically telegraph the insistent anthropocentrism that gave birth to Hothouse Earth in the first place.

King’s instinct to create a perfect record of his life is reminiscent of the immortality pursuits of real-life billionaires – think Larry Page’s interest in ‘solving death’ or Elon’s neurotech company Neuralink Musk. Vara, who worked for years as a technology correspondent for publications like The Wall Street Journal, was no doubt influenced by the growing affinity between techno-billionaires and the hunt for immortality. The source of King’s wealth also resembles many of the tech co-founders: “Coconut Corporation’s entire business has been built on extracting and profiting from the personal information of its users, while claiming that its goal was to bring people together in harmony.” It is perhaps too easy to replace the phrase “users’ personal information” with “natural resources” here, although Vara’s scathing critique of the tech sphere also reminds us that what counts as a resource is as exploitable as the resources themselves.

Still Immortal King Rao charts a narrative in which King and Athena find themselves on the outskirts of the society the Coconut Corporation helped build. King suffers a high-profile disgrace, while Athena finds herself aiding the “Exes”, a radical group that literally lives outside the algorithm’s grid. Going back and forth between King’s childhood, his rise to power, and Athena’s present, Immortal King Rao ponders the complex culpability of individual actors within vast and pernicious systems. The complex, overarching nature of the plot only underscores its fundamental vanity: an endemic thirst for innovation is the dividing line between early plantation economies and a totally privatized world. At the end of this historical continuum is a world that is unlivable, but not unrecognizable. The novel imagines a world where a descendant of Dalit coconut farmers finds himself at the pinnacle of technological and global power, and where his daughter finds herself living in an anarchist commune bent on destroying everything her father has built.

As such, Immortal King Rao is not a beautiful allegory of environmental racism or the corrupting influence of power. However, he nevertheless insists that we be attentive to the relationships between apparently diverse goods (coconuts on the one hand, computers on the other), and to the difficulty of tearing them away from systems dedicated to extracting value from them. . Additionally, Vara neatly segues her story with a convoluted – and never sweet – love story; between father and daughter, husband and wife, and, significantly, a coalition of renegades who dream that another life is possible. With just under 400 pages, Immortal King RaoThe expansive scope of may seem a bit limited by its length. Or, perhaps, it cleverly reflects the turbulence of its narrator’s mind. Athena, after all, isn’t just faced with the task of digesting all of her father’s conscious experience – she’s faced with a history of extraction so vast it’s nearly impossible to know where to begin. But it’s the story that, from her prison cell, she must do her best to tell, in hopes that it can lead to her (and, perhaps, humanity’s) salvation.

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Lauren Nelson is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Texas at Austin.

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