Coconuts, Corporations: On Vauhini Vara’s “The Immortal King Rao”

TALLYING THE VARIOUS uses of the coconut, the 20th-century agriculturist Frederic Rosengarten Jr. writes that “[e]very part” of the crop can be “utilized for some human need.” Citing the amount of protein found in one coconut’s meat, the versatility of its shell and coir, and the approximate amount of lumber provided by the trunk of its tree, Rosengarten concludes that “[o]ne could live almost endlessly on the coconut’s products.” Here, Rosengarten unwittingly tethers the long history of human-led environmental extraction to the fantasy of living forever on nature’s endless bounty — a fantasy that, as our current environmental crisis makes clear, is antithetical to global, unbounded projects like monocropping, mineral-mining , logging, and drilling. In Vauhini Vara’s The Immortal King Raothese realities confront each other, doing so by zeroing in on one resource: the coconut.

Athena, the 17-year-old narrator of Vara’s debut novel, rehears the contents of Rosengarten’s book as she describes the childhood of her father, the titular King Rao. King Rao’s memories, as well as the text of Rosengarten’s The Book of Edible Nuts, arrives to Athena’s conscious mind via an experimental technology called the Harmonica, an injectable solution that fuses the recipient’s brain to the internet itself, permitting Athena to seamlessly search for, condense, and save information from the web into the elastic expanse of her own mind . Yet, as Vara’s novel reveals in its early chapters, Athena’s Harmonica has also been granted access to the entirety of her father’s memories. As the aged King Rao empties the contents of his life into his daughter’s consciousness, he also creates the conditions for Vara’s sprawling, intergenerational epic, which begins on the Rao coconut plantation in rural Kothapalli, India. Imprisoned for a crime that she did not commit, Athena is tasked with relaying not only the circumstances that led to her arrest, but also those that engendered her father’s rise to wealth, prominence, and, eventually, the restructuring of governmental order. The story of how she came into the hands of the police is not an isolated event; it is part of the larger story of her father’s emigration and his role in engineering the very government now holding her captive. Athena’s plea for freedom thus entails not only a retelling of her father’s life and deeds, but also forcibly reliving his memories alongside her own.

The Immortal King Rao begins in an era of peak privatization: government — first the US, then the rest of the world — has been replaced by a Board of Directors. With the aid of a deific Algorithm, the Board governs its Shareholders (formerly citizens) by endowing them with Social Capital, a metric that stands in for both financial status and general social “value.” As society wells to its technological and capitalistic limits, so, too, does the ecological catastrophe known as Hothouse Earth. This social overhaul was borne of King’s first invention, a personal computer he called the Coconut. Inspired by the crop’s endless utility and aided by his wife Margaret’s keen instinct for business, King’s string of inventions (including the all-knowing Algorithm itself) quickly transcend their status as popular consumer goods; Instead, they become the fabric of the world’s economy, sociality, and governance.

In this sense, the supposedly immortal King Rao does live “almost endlessly” on the coconut’s products. As Athena narrates King’s rise to wealth and power, she also covertly reveals how much King’s reverence for his familial crop is entangled in a web of enterprise and environmental destruction. Vara’s novel, which gestures toward a number of tropes in contemporary speculative fiction — technology’s increasing imbrication in our social and political lives, the rise of unfettered corporatization, our careening movement toward environmental apocalypse — places these consequences on a timeline that begins with a coconut plantation in Southeast India. The farming of coconuts, an enterprise that is emblematic of the deep history of imperialization and globalization, sits at the heart of Vara’s exploration of technology and capital.

Raised by her father on his isolated estate on Bainbridge Island, Athena grows up surrounded by Southeast Indian vegetation: Vara writes, “None of the plants on the Raos’ twenty gorgeous acres of gardens were native to the Pacific Northwest; They were all tropical flora, guava and coconut trees, multicolored flowers that practically spurted from their stems, wax-like.” On the harbor cruise tours that circle Bainbridge Island — permitting tourists to raise their binoculars in the direction of the famous estate — the tour guides quiz their passengers as to how such a feat could be possible in the rainy, cold environs of the Pacific Northwest. The correct answer forecasts one central theme in The Immortal King Raowhich is the fraught relationship between technological innovation and environmental destruction:

More often than not, some home-and-garden aficionado on board would have the answer. King and Margaret Rao’s secretive, private research organization, the Rao Project, had been commissioned to come up with genetically modified 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 fruit eaten by the world’s poor and creating climate-adaptive produces that could withstand rising temperatures.

Vara juxtaposes the image of the Rao estate’s tropical bounty with the desolate state of King’s familial plantation in Kothapalli. Decades after King’s immigration to the United States, the once-fecund Garden has lapsed into “a muddy, abandoned plot of land, littered where it met the road with crushed pop cans, rain-sodden plastic bags, and cigarette butts.” The coconut trees, reduced to “flapping brown and brittle fronds,” limn the long, squat houses that now have “paint peeling from their walls, the thatching of their twin roofs lifting in the breeze and slapping down again.” Despite the secret machinations of the Rao Project, King’s corporation was not able to save his former home, nor the Global South at large, from environmental catastrophe.

Recounting one of King’s memories, Athena narrates a scene from his first year as CEO of the Shareholder Government during which King “convened a global consortium of experts to examine how science could be considered to return the climate to historically normal conditions.” The “march toward Hothouse Earth,” however, was already well underway, and the experts presented their report: nothing could be done to rewind the clocks on environmental destruction or, put more bluntly, “you couldn’t refreeze the Arctic.” Disbelieving, Margaret leans in: were these experts “really suggesting that humans had exhausted their potential for innovation — that if something hadn’t been invented yet, it never would be?” While his wife remains bent on pursuing technological solutions to climate change, King changes tack. He begins inventing the Harmonica in earnest, describing it as “humanity’s only chance of having a future.” “With Hothouse Earth coming,” King reasons, “we needed to think about how to preserve some record of who we were.” It is telling that King’s final accomplishment is only the preservation of who he was, enabling Vara to metonymically telegraph the insistent anthropocentrism that gave rise to Hothouse Earth in the first place.

King’s instinct to create a perfect record of his life is reminiscent of real-life billionaires’ immortality pursuits — think Larry Page’s interest in “solving death” or Elon Musk’s neurotechnology company Neuralink. Vara, who has worked for years as a technology correspondent for publications like The Wall Street Journal, was undoubtedly influenced by the increasing affinity between techno-billionaires and the hunt for immortality. The source of King’s also resembles many a tech cofounder: “The Coconut Corporation’s whole business was built on extracting and profiting from its users’ personal information, while claiming 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, though Vara’s scathing critique of the tech sphere also reminds us that what counts as a resource is as relentlessly mineable as the resources themselves.

Yet The Immortal King Rao charts a narrative whereby both King and Athena find themselves on the outer edges of the society that the Coconut Corporation helped to build. King undergoes a highly publicized fall from grace, whereas Athena finds herself aiding the “Exes,” a radical group that lives literally off the Algorithm’s grid. Moving back and forth between King’s childhood, his rise to prominence, and Athena’s present, The Immortal King Rao mediates on the complex culpability of individual actors within wide and pernicious systems. The intricate, global nature of the plot serves only to underscore its core conceit: an endemic hunger for innovation is the through-line between early plantation harvest and an utterly privatized world. At the end of this historical continuum is an unlivable — but not unrecognizable — world. The novel imagines a world where a descendent of Dalit coconut farmers finds himself at the height of technological and global power and where his daughter finds herself living in an anarchist commune bent on the destruction of everything her father built.

As such, The Immortal King Rao is not a neat allegory of environmental racism or the corrupting influence of power. However, it nevertheless insists that we pay attention to relationships between seemingly diverse commodities (coconuts on the one hand, computers on the other), and how difficult it is to wrench them from systems bent on extracting their value. Moreover, Vara adeptly threads her story with a complicated — and never saccharine — story of love; Between father and daughter, husband and wife, and, significantly, a coalition of renegades who dream that another kind of life is possible. At just under 400 pages, The Immortal King Rao‘s expansive reach might feel a little constrained by its length. Or, perhaps, it deftly mirrors the turbulence of its narrator’s mind. Athena, after all, isn’t only faced with the task of digesting her father’s entire conscious experience — she is up against a history of extraction so wide-reaching that it is almost impossible to know where to begin. But this is the story that, from her prison cell, she has to try her best to tell, in hopes that it might lead to her (and, maybe, humanity’s) salvation.

¤

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

Leave a Comment