King Rao, the billionaire tech founder at the center of Vauhini Vara’s debut novel, The Immortal King Rao, is neither a king nor, strictly speaking, immortal. A brilliant man of modest origins—born into a fractious clan of Dalit coconut farmers in post-independence India and later immigrating to the US to study engineering at the dawn of Silicon Valley’s ascendancy—he is in fact already dead by the time we encounter him, in the novel’s opening lines: “King Rao left this world as the most influential person ever to have lived. He entered it possessing not even a name.” These words, and the ambitious and densely populated fiction they inaugurate, are delivered, we soon learn, not by some disembodied narrator but by King Rao’s daughter, Athena.
There’s nothing particularly radical about a story told by a narrator who is herself a character in, though not the protagonist of, that story; it’s a gambit variously employed in Moby-Dick, Heart of Darkness, and The Great Gatsby. What is unusual about The Immortal King Rao is the means by which this strategy is justified. Athena is in a position to tell her father’s story, from humble beginnings to Promethean end, because she is the heiress, via an uploading technology he himself invented, of his entire conscious mind. King Rao, dead though he may be, lives on in both a speculatively science-fictional and a sentimental sense: in the memory of his child, he is immortal.
Like her mythological namesake, who sprang fully formed from the forehead of Zeus, Athena is the product of her father’s aloof and godlike ingenuity. King, who reads as a volatile compound of Steve Jobs and Victor Frankenstein, was the inventor, with his ex-wife, Margie, of a wildly popular personal computer named, in homage to his origins, the Coconut, and later of the Harmonica, a biotech device that allows human minds to be connected to the Internet, and thereby to other, likewise connected minds. Whereas the Coconut’s success, starting in the 1980s, makes King the world’s richest businessman, the Harmonica’s launch is an unmitigated catastrophe, leading to the deaths of dozens of test volunteers and, more or less directly, to King’s downfall as the de facto leader of a world government presided over by a corporate board and effectively run by an artificial superintelligence known as the Algo.
It’s probably clear by now that there’s a lot going on in Vara’s novel. In the absence of brain-computer-interface and memory-uploading technologies, you’ll have to make do here with my sketchy rendering of the book’s unflaggingly industrious plot. There are three main timelines, each of which operates within the conventions of a different genre. There’s a family saga centered around King’s childhood on the coconut plantation in rural India. There’s a kind of business-casual bildungsroman about his early years in the US, in which he takes up with Margie Norman, the daughter of his computer science professor, to start Coconut. And there’s a speculative sci-fi dystopia that takes place in Athena’s time, featuring a broadly anarchist group called the Exes, from whom she conceals the fact that her father is the founder of the intensely surveilled global order they have opted out of and are plotting against.
Although it leads to King’s downfall, and to his consequent exile at an isolated Puget Sound compound, the Harmonica disaster does not deter him from pursuing his dream of a connected human brain. The technology, which alters a person’s genetic code so that their body produces tiny bio-transistors capable of translating neurological signals into digital code, needs to be implanted, he decides, in very young subjects, whose brains have a higher level of plasticity. And so, utterly alone and well into his nineties, he becomes, via clandestine surrogate pregnancy, father to Athena, who was modified at embryo stage with this transhuman genetic tech. Athena and King have something of a Miranda/Prospero situation going on, with technology taking the place of The Tempest’s magic: her entire childhood is spent in isolation on the island, where her only human contact is with her elderly, ostracized father, and her only connection with the outside world the Internet that is beamed directly into her consciousness.
Despite the radical implications of her narrator’s cognitive enhancement—her mind connected to others’ and capable of accessing her father’s memory like a digital media archive—Vara never really uses it as anything other than a means of advancing her narrative. The novel’s technologies, which are the sort of thing that transhumanist thinkers and Silicon Valley techno-utopians insist will facilitate an evolutionary change in human consciousness, are not so much transformative devices as plain old plot devices.
We are occasionally given glimpses of Athena’s experience as a technologically enhanced being. Her Clarinet (King’s name for the new iteration of the Harmonica, which he’s testing on her) starts kicking in when she reaches seven, the age of reason; when her father addresses her by the pet name Puffin, she describes a sudden vision of puffins standing on a snow-covered boulder, with “their potbellied stomachs thrust forward as if they were businessmen at a conference”:
The scene was as vivid as if it were real. But to call it a hallucination wouldn’t be right. I was looking, in my mind’s eye, at actual puffins that had conferenced on an actual boulder. The image in front of me was from the website of the Audubon Society. I was aware of this, of the source, because the experience wasn’t only perceptual. It also contained information…. It’s strange to try to explain to someone who hasn’t experienced it. But all of this emerged in my mind almost as if I were reading about it or watching a movie.
A generous reading of the passage above might accommodate the possibility that Athena’s gracelessly functional prose—“potbellied stomachs”; “as vivid as if it were real”; “almost as if I were reading about it or watching a movie”—is intended to reflect the workings of a mind diminished by its own enhancements. But unlike, say, Kazuo Ishiguro, whose Klara and the Sun painstakingly and movingly evokes, through the subtle estrangements of its narrative voice, the innocence and naiveté of its AI robot protagonist, Vara seems largely uninterested in the formal possibilities introduced by her device. To have access to the content of other minds, and to experience one’s own as a nexus of data streams, would surely be a deeply weird business; the difference between such a consciousness and our own merely iPhone-addled brains might well be qualitative rather than quantitative.
But for Vara, whose background is in tech and business journalism, a character’s Internet-connected brain is mainly a license for that character to tell us more than she would otherwise be in a position to know. Her superhuman cognitive capacities, in other words, permit her to occupy that most old-fashioned of literary roles, omniscient narrator. In the sections of the novel that deal with King’s early years on the coconut grove in India, it’s easy to forget that the existence of such a story—familiar in its outline, conventional in its telling—is predicated on its teller’s radically altered condition.
While reading The Immortal King Rao and thinking about its failure to reckon with the weirder ramifications of its central premise, I thought of the American science-fiction writer Ted Chiang, whose work often grapples with the implications of alien or artificially enhanced intelligences. His story “The Evolution of Human Science,” originally published in the journal Nature and later collected in his Stories of Your Life and Others (2002), is a taut, Borgesian thought experiment, presented as a note from the editors of a scientific journal reflecting on the advent, a generation before, of cognitively enhanced “metahumans.” Their vastly superior intelligence means that even the most brilliant of nonenhanced scientists are incapable of understanding the scientific advancements made by metahumans, and are reduced to mere hermeneutics—to interpreting and simplifying the increasingly incomprehensible work of their cognitive superiors.
The story, barely three pages long, is a work of masterful compression and formal discipline that leaves the reader with a haunting sense of the possibilities and losses of such a posthuman future. In another story, “Understand,” Chiang’s narrator is just such an enhanced human, who as the story progresses gets closer and closer to an amoral divine enlightenment. The writing has a sort of hallucinogenic potency; it offers a tantalizing glimpse of what it might be like to see patterns at a glance in the most chaotic and random phenomena, to soar ever higher above the human world. Reading Chiang’s story feels like having fleeting access to the mind of a god.* Vara’s Athena, despite her divine appellation and her superhuman enhancements, writes like a mortal with an MFA.
The most conceptually interesting of the plots in The Immortal King Rao is the near-future timeline. Here, drawing on her journalistic experience—Vara was a business editor at The New Yorker’s website and a reporter at The Wall Street Journal, where she covered Silicon Valley—she needs only to give present-day reality a couple of speculative nudges in the direction of dystopia. The more sci-fi aspects of this world—brain-computer interfaces, mind uploading, life-extension therapies, and so forth—are clearly based on the grandiose discourse around transhumanist technologies that has emerged from Silicon Valley in recent years. The long-term aim of Elon Musk’s company Neuralink, for instance, is to enhance the human mind by merging human brains with AI. And the range of rejuvenation technologies King avails himself of is reminiscent of the futurist Ray Kurzweil’s daily consumption of a smorgasbord of supplements, and of the prospect, infamously raised in an interview by Peter Thiel, of blood transfusions from young donors as a life-extension therapy.
The political system imagined in Vara’s book also owes something to the more extreme end of Silicon Valley corporate libertarianism. Its structure is both populist and hierarchical: a global order in which citizens are replaced by Shareholders whose interests are, at least nominally, served by a board and a CEO. The effective power, however, resides with the Algo, a Master Algorithm created by King; doing away with the need for corrupt and ideologically driven politicians, this artificial superintelligence runs the show, presiding over everything from general policies to individual legal rulings.
The rhetoric surrounding this social order is loosely egalitarian: each Shareholder is allocated Social Capital based on the Algo’s assessment of the value of their labor. But the reality is basically indistinguishable from capitalism in the waning days of our own liberal democratic system. “The prior richness of the rich and the poorness of the poor had been grandfathered into the shareholding system,” Athena tells us. If you’re not already wealthy, or if you haven’t created or sold some valuable piece of intellectual property,
your best bet…that is, if you were good-looking and charismatic enough, was to try to make it as an influencer. Otherwise, you were left to look after those who had made it—to nurse their children, scrub their toilets, trim their hedges, stencil their toenails.
With blunt insistence, Vara establishes an equivalence between the Indian caste system King Rao flees as a young man and the techno-capitalist global order he comes to create. Athena’s rebellion against that system leads her to the Exes and their anarcho-primitivist society in the technologically disconnected Blanklands, and to a role in her father’s eventual destruction, and her own. The novel obeys, in this sense, an algorithmic logic of tragedy, but is ultimately too schematic, and too overburdened with the complex mechanics of its own plot, to deliver any kind of catharsis.
In its delineation of a world just slightly out of true with the one we know, in which mind-uploading technology has changed how humans relate to themselves and to one another, The Immortal King Rao has a good deal in common with another recent work of slightly speculative literary fiction, Jennifer Egan’s The Candy House. In Egan’s novel, which is a sort of companion piece to her 2011 Pulitzer Prize–winner A Visit from the Goon Squad, a technology called Own Your Unconscious allows people to search their memories, and those of others, in a kind of vast digital media archive. “By uploading all or part of your externalized memory to an online ‘collective,’” one of Egan’s numerous narrators explains, “you gained proportionate access to the anonymous thoughts and memories of everyone in the world, living or dead, who had done the same.”
The novel’s opening section introduces us to the ingenious tech founder Bix Bouton. Having already changed the world once with his company Mandala (an amalgamation of Facebook and Google), Bix is, when we meet him, on the verge of doing so again with the invention of Own Your Unconscious. Egan establishes him as leading-man material in these early pages, then ushers him offstage and keeps him there until very near the end of the book. He never quite disappears, because the effects of his innovation echo through The Candy House’s elegantly interconnecting rooms, but it’s the technology, rather than its creator, that is the novel’s true protagonist.
The Candy House is more restlessly complex than The Immortal King Rao, and it’s a lot more fun to read. Egan is a master of structure, and highly skilled in the arts of narrative persuasion: the reader is frictionlessly compelled, within a few lines, to believe in her characters and fictional scenarios. This is just as well, because each chapter focuses on a new character, who in most cases has featured in some or other secondary role in a previous chapter, more often than not the one directly preceding. The novel works like a collection of linked short stories. Its narrative force is centrifugal rather than linear; it seems to gather momentum by regular, sharp deviations from its own prior trajectory. Egan’s writing is, in this sense, extremely high tech; reading the novel, you intuit (but never really glimpse) the deep structural mechanisms that run with algorithmic insistence inside the software of the story.
Egan’s novel is much less foreboding than Vara’s about the transformative technologies at its center and about our future more generally; the mind-uploading stuff mostly runs in the background of the book, facilitating plot developments and permitting characters access to other characters’ minds and memories. There’s nothing particularly dystopian about the world Egan imagines, in which everyone has access to everyone else’s innermost thoughts and feelings. There is some anxiety, it is true, about what part a fiction writer might have to play in such a world.
One of Egan’s characters, Chris Salazar (son of record executive Bennie Salazar, a central figure in A Visit from the Goon Squad), works as an analyst at a tech company, where his job is to reduce every possible narrative scenario to a neat mathematical equation. And Bix Bouton’s son Gregory is a creative writing student who struggles with the implications of what his powerful (and now deceased) father has unleashed on humanity. “Nothing could change Gregory’s belief,” we are told, “that Own Your Unconscious posed an existential threat to fiction.” But Gregory eventually reconciles himself to the idea that the rhetorical imperatives of tech, a collective life of boundless connectivity, are in fact in keeping with the aims of the novelist: “He and his father were alike, after all.”
As a rule, Egan likes to give her characters happy endings, even when it means occasionally erring (as above) on the side of triteness. The book’s characters, for all the variety of their stories, have two things in common: they tend to be glamorous—her pages heave suavely with not just high-flying record execs and tech billionaires but also sexy spies, elusive anthropologists, and film stars—and they tend to make good in the end. The Candy House, despite its skillful construction, can feel as sweetly unsatisfying as its name suggests. And although it’s a more intriguing and enjoyable fiction than The Immortal King Rao, it is no more interested in exploring the profound implications of the technologies it invokes.
At various points in Egan’s book, the story centers around a character retrieving information from another character’s mind. With Own Your Unconscious, users can search for the memories of, say, a deceased friend in the minds of anyone from a former lover to a total stranger who once walked by them on the street. People can display their own past as though they were screening a home movie for friends. A dying Bix Bouton, for instance, sits his family down and plays them his memory of the night he conceived of Own Your Unconscious. In another section, a character describes, in richly novelistic detail, the life-changing epiphany her father experienced after smoking weed for the first time in the 1960s. In both cases, the fiction rests on an understanding of consciousness as something that might be recorded and reproduced—as though a person’s memory, were it to be fully retrieved, could serve as a transparent and reliable source of truth.
The use of mind-uploading technology as a plot device is in this sense doubly unsatisfying, in both Vara’s and Egan’s books: not only is the potential weirdness of such a prospect never really exploited, but the actual weirdness of human memory, of consciousness itself, goes almost entirely unacknowledged. What we get, in other words, is a rendering of memory that owes much more to the conventions of good old-fashioned realist fiction than to the strange and irreducible phenomenon of human consciousness. In both novels, it’s as though a grand merger of AI and human minds had been effected to enable, or in any case to justify, the kind of close third-person narration that a writer like Edith Wharton pulled off very nicely with her bare hands. (Reading both books, I found myself thinking of when Elon Musk floats some supposedly ingenious solution to, say, the problem of traffic that essentially amounts to inventing the train.)
At the heart of these books is a question: What might it be like to serve as omniscient narrator of another person’s life? What would it mean, in other words, to share fully in that person’s experience, with the benefit of hindsight and context, so that you could write their story in rich and faithful detail? This is a question, of course, that the novel as an art form has always attempted to answer with its own existence. The Immortal King Rao and The Candy House are books about technology, but they are also, more specifically, books about narrative as a technology for the production of meaning and connection.
Each novel ends with a different attempt to answer this question. In the calmly apocalyptic final lines of Vara’s book, Athena, in a state of dreamy (and perhaps fatal) exhaustion, wonders why we must continually ask what it means for us to live, or to have lived, on this dying planet:
For what? we kept demanding. For what?… But when a tree sprouts from the ground, it doesn’t demand answers; when its blossoms grow tired and heavy, it lets them drop. After all our trouble, is that it, then? Did it all mean nothing but itself?
Although it reads as a refutation of King Rao’s Promethean ambition, and of the wider desire for technological mastery and control, it is also legible as an abdication of narrative itself.
It’s a strange, quietly discordant note for the book to end on, and it sounds an unintentional echo with the reader’s uncertainty about what the story itself, in all its cumulative complexity, has ultimately amounted to. The Candy House, in its more buoyant way, ends with a dual defense of both fiction and technology. For all Bix Bouton’s ingenious innovations, which afford their user a god’s-eye view of the lives of others, it is fiction that allows us total freedom to roam the vastness of human experience. “Knowing everything,” writes Egan, “is too much like knowing nothing; without a story, it’s all just information.” The most transformative technology of all, the book suggests, is the narrative imagination.