The revenge of Big Tech

When tech companies rule the world, what could go wrong?

 

Vauhini Vara began her career reporting on Silicon Valley in the early 2000s. Back then, the potential of tech companies to build community and connect people across the world seemed infinitely promising. But only a few years into her journalism career, Vara grew concerned — not only about the industry’s breakneck growth, but also about its increasingly unchecked power. That’s when she turned to fiction, getting her MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. 

“In fiction, you can imagine these futures that aren’t yet here,” she said. “It’s not irresponsible to do so, it’s one of the things that fiction can do really beautifully and really well.”

The Immortal King Rao, Vara’s debut novel, imagines a dystopian future where the tech industry is not only unregulated; it is the regulator. It is the government — globally — shaping all aspects of the “Shareholders’,” i.e., the citizens’, lives. At its helm is King Rao, born into a family of Dalit coconut farmers in India. Eventually, King makes his way to the Washington coast, where his technological innovations catapult him to fame and fortune, before plunging him into shame and accusations that he has, literally, destroyed people’s lives. High Country News recently spoke with Vara about drawing on her family history and her experience as a journalist to create fiction, the implications of caste for her characters, and the importance of landscape in her writing.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Raksha Vasudevan: Can you tell me about the inspiration for this story? Do you remember where you were when the idea was born?

Vauhini Vara: I do, actually. It was the winter of 2009. I was traveling with my dad and his wife in South America when I was in graduate school. I remember we were on a train, and my dad was teasingly like, “Why do you keep writing short stories? You should be working on a novel.”

I, also teasingly, was like, “OK, dad, why don’t you give me an idea for a novel then?” He was like, “Well, you could write the story of my family on the coconut grove in India.” 

He was raised there at a time when the caste relations in the country were changing. And in that time, my dad’s family came into ownership of this coconut grove where they had previously been workers. That changed all these dynamics within his family in interesting and eventually challenging ways. That was the jumping-off point for the novel. At the same time, because I had been working as a tech reporter for the Wall Street Journal, I had all these ideas floating around in my mind about Silicon Valley and the rise of Big Tech. 

So the story of my dad’s family farm and the story of the rise of Big Tech became the same novel through King Rao, this character who is born on this coconut grove in the ’50s.

RV: In the book, we see a Washington coast that’s plunged into ever-greater climate catastrophe — drought, wildfire, flooding — while a group of outliers, the Exes, tries to forge a different path, which is essentially a return to living off the land. Why did you choose this area of the country to illustrate the threats and joys of humans’ evolving relationship to nature?

VV: My family moved to the Seattle area when I started eighth grade. Still, when I think of an ideal landscape, that’s what it is for me — the mountains and the water and the greenery and the beautiful vegetation. But now, coastal places like Seattle or the Godavari Delta in India, where part of the novel is also set, are experiencing some of the most devastating impacts of climate change. So, I thought the coasts could showcase how people could have a close sense of communion with the land, but are also a place where the threat of climate change was very present.

RV: I found it remarkable to read this book at a time when there’s so much discussion about the importation of caste from India to America. Do you see this book as part of that conversation?

VV: Growing up, my own caste identity wasn’t something I was particularly aware of. But to write about the coconut grove and the family’s relationship to the land, I was almost forced to write about caste and class. And then I imagined King Rao becoming a tech CEO in the U.S. An Indian-American becoming a tech CEO was a stretch when I started writing, 10 years ago. I imagined I was drafting this alternate history. 

Now, an Indian American CEO of a very powerful tech company doesn’t seem unusual. But the part that represents a future that we haven’t yet arrived at is a Dalit person becoming a tech CEO. King Rao is one of many Dalit characters in the book. He’s aware of how caste has narrowed his opportunities, but he doesn’t have a broadminded sense of caste oppression in the way that some of the other Dalit characters do. So, it’s not an accident that the character who becomes the head of a powerful world government that creates all sorts of social stratification is that character who is not engaged with issues of casteism and caste oppression.

RV: What about the Exes and the alternative they offer to this techno-capitalist establishment? What were some of your inspirations in building their ideology, the individual characters, their community?

VV: Anarchism is not a philosophy that I would consider myself very well versed in, but I did a lot of reading to understand it for the purposes of the novel. I read Emma Goldman’s autobiography. I was also reading Daoist philosophy. I tried to have the Exes not be too didactic. I wanted their way of being to be informed both by these ancient texts and by more modern anarchist thoughts. At the same time, I didn’t want it to be portrayed as a perfect alternative. I think in our current post capitalist society, a fringe group like the Exes would exist only as long as the more powerful forces tolerated them.

RV: I wondered if the Exes were also inspired by events like the WTO protests that took place in Seattle while you were living there.

VV: Yes, definitely. I remember seeing images in the news of those protests right across the bridge from where I grew up and being captivated by them — by the fact that regular people were out there taking a stand on something. I found it very exciting and moving. It was such a different time too, of pre-social media, and of course, pre-cellphones. And the Exes in the novel, they reject technology. Those protests informed my understanding of what a tech-free protest movement might look like.

I remember seeing images in the news of those protests right across the bridge from where I grew up and being captivated by them — by the fact that regular people were out there taking a stand on something. 

RV: You grew up in Seattle, and then you lived in the Bay Area. Now you live in Colorado. How did these settings shape your writing process?

VV: In early drafts of the book, a lot was happening on a pretty abstract level. So, Athena (Rao’s daughter) and her dad lived somewhere offshore near the U.S., but we didn’t really know where, and the Exes also lived somewhere offshore. A friend of mine, Anna North, who’s also a writer, read it and was like, “There needs to be an actual place on a map that we can visualize.”

I remember looking at Google Maps and wondering, “What’s the coastal place where these people could live?” And then zooming in closer and closer near Seattle and realizing, “Oh, right. They could live here.” I ended up zeroing in on Blake Island. You can take a boat and hike around the island, but people don’t live there. There’s no services. So I decided to have Athena and her dad live on that island. That broke open a lot for the book. I eventually went to visit the island, traipsed through the forest. That landscape was eventually important to the book on a very visceral level. 

I finished the book in Colorado. My relationship with the natural world has been stronger here than anywhere else I’ve lived. I was also doing a lot of edits two summers ago, when there were the really bad wildfires. You’d walk outside and there would be smoke in your eyes and in your throat. So, I went back to certain sections that dealt specifically with climate change, which I would describe as an ever-present backdrop of the book. I wrote through those sections that summer, because it felt very present and urgent.

HCN: I remember a line from the book about how the sunsets were too beautiful. And I was like, “Oh, yeah, that’s exactly right. It’s beautiful in this almost obscene way.” 

VV: I remember writing that during that weird summer, when you would look up at the sky and it was gorgeous, but wrongly gorgeous. That coincided with a deepening sense of setting in the book. Living in this place where I’ve been more aware of the setting of my own life helped me understand the importance of it for the book as well.   

Raksha Vasudevan is an economist and writer based in Denver. Her work has appeared in LitHub, The Los Angeles Review of Books, NYLON and more. We welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy. 

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