Science fiction mirrors contemporary reality says Lavanya Lakshminarayan

The first Indian woman to be shortlisted for the prestigious Arthur C Clarke Award, shares the surreal feeling of cutting her debut book, ‘The Ten Percent Thief’
‘The Ten Percent Thief’ book cover
‘The Ten Percent Thief’ book coverPhoto | Express

KOCHI: 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, the city’s 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 shortages, and air pollution.

At present, Bengaluru seems to be staring at a dystopian future where the quality of life continues to deteriorate, and its social fabric is 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, now called Apex City, the novel explores themes of meritocracy, technological control, and social inequality. The book’s portrayal of these issues earned it a place among the nominees for the prestigious Arthur C. Clarke Award.

Reflecting on the nomination, Lavanya says, “I was completely taken aback. It was a 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 the award is tremendous.” The winner of the award will be announced on July 24.

In The Ten Percent Thief, Lavanya 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.

Lavanya Lakshminarayan
Lavanya LakshminarayanPhoto | Express

“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.

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 the city 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. One of the good things about Bengaluru, she adds, “is that we still have parks, open spaces, and lakes.”

She further said that 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. More public spaces encouraging people to sit around, preferably with greenery, is doable with a bit of reprioritisation.

At its core, The Ten Percent Thief is a call to question societal norms. The author wants readers to question the dominant assumptions they operate under. “There are many such assumptions 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.

The book presents a class system that prompts readers to question their assumptions about the people around them.

“We need to 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 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,” she concludes.

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The New Indian Express