‘Question the echo chambers’

Lavanya Lakshminarayan has authored The Ten Percent Thief—the first time the work of an Indian woman has been shortlisted for the prestigious Arthur C Clarke Award. A conversation with the writer on the surreal feeling of making the cut for her debut novel
Lavanya Lakshminarayan, author of ' The Ten Percent Thief'.
Lavanya Lakshminarayan, author of ' The Ten Percent Thief'.

The relentless pursuit of development and continuous growth has taken a heavy toll on quaint old Bangalore. The city’s once-abundant tree cover has dwindled alarmingly. Its lakes, a matter of pride in the past, have become polluted cesspools, their waters choked with sewage and industrial waste. The city’s infrastructure is struggling to keep pace with its rapid growth, leading to notorious traffic jams, water shortage, and air pollution. At this pace, Bengaluru seems to be staring at a dystopian future where the quality of life continues to deteriorate, and its social fabric under increasing strain as economic disparities widen.

Writer and game designer Lavanya Lakshminarayan’s debut novel, The Ten Percent Thief (Rebellion; Rs 791), offers a striking vision of this potential future. Set in a reimagined Bengaluru, called Apex City, the novel explores themes of meritocracy, technological control, and social inequality. The book’s portrayal of these issues recently earned it a shortlist nomination for the prestigious Arthur C. Clarke Award.

Why it matters

Reflecting on the nomination, Lakshminarayan says, “I was completely taken aback. It was an unexpected, wonderful surprise because it’s such an enormous honour. The feeling was surreal. To be the first Indian woman, and the second Indian ever after Amitav Ghosh, to be considered for this award is tremendous.” The winner of the award will be announced on July 24.

In The Ten Percent Thief, Lakshminarayan not only envisions a future shaped by relentless progress but also invites readers to question the current trajectory of urban development and its impact on society. “Science fiction mirrors contemporary reality, allowing us to comment on society’s current happenings, power structures, and human relationships. By placing science fiction in an imagined setting, even if it’s 100 years in the future, we create a disconnect from our known reality and place people in unfamiliar situations to explore what it means to be human. This allows us to reflect our contemporary values and power structures in an alternative dimension without the burden of historical context, getting to the heart of humanity itself,” she says.

The Ten Percent Thief delves into the consequences of a society where worth is determined by productivity and social metrics. Society is divided into two sections: Virtuals and Analogs. The former enjoy privileges like advanced technology and climate-controlled environments, while the latter survive in harsh, resource-scarce conditions. The novel has received acclaim for its sharp social commentary and vivid world-building.

A city re-imagined

By setting her story in a future version of Bengaluru, she explores the stark divisions in society and the consequences of a productivity-obsessed culture. “Bengaluru is a younger city in terms of being an economic hub compared to Delhi and Mumbai, which have been economic centres for much longer. While Bengaluru hasn’t reached that tipping point yet, except perhaps in terms of traffic, one thing is critical: the solutions for framing the future city must be widely accessible, not reserved for the elite or socially privileged,” she says, adding, “One of the good things about Bengaluru, despite my criticisms, is that we still have parks, open spaces, and lakes. These spaces should be open and accessible. Some parks, like Cubbon Park and Lal Bagh, are still common spaces not restricted by privilege, though you do need the privilege to reach them. This culture needs to be more widespread across all public spaces.”

At its core, The Ten Percent Thief is a call to question societal norms. “I want readers to question the dominant assumptions they operate under. There are many ingrained in society and civilisation in this book. Question the argument of merit and the value of being hyper-productive. What is it really returning to you? From a young age, we’re trained to work hard for a good school, college, job, and eventually a bigger house. Just question how committed you are to this cycle,” she says, adding, “Question your assumptions about the people around you. Question those class and caste assumptions, because we take many things for granted without examining our identity and its intersections. The book also has a lot of these properties in it, so question the echo chambers you’re in and the information you receive. There are dominant narratives and suppressed ones; we need to be open to hearing all of them. Just question your assumptions of reality because it’s a very nice little box you’re in until you see what lies beyond.”

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The New Indian Express