The Big Idea: Lavanya Lakshminarayan
Coming up with one main character can be hard enough, but author Lavanya Lakshminarayan came up with over twenty in her debut novel, The Ten Percent Thief. Read on to see how all these individual stories took form and shaped into one book.
I first met my arch-nemesis burnout when I worked in videogames. We took to each other like a house on fire. I was a woman game designer working in a predominantly male-dominated industry, hellbent on proving myself, and willing to put in the extra hours to do so. Burnout was my shadow, lurking in my flight path all the way to its inevitable conclusion—splattered against a glass ceiling, blood, feathers, and objective lack of glory.
Unyielding sixty-odd-hour work weeks with high pressure stakes never end well. Six years into my gaming career, I hit the end of the road when I found myself having a panic attack in a grocery store. I was overwhelmed by the fact that tomatoes were, in fact, 3D objects and not jpegs on the screen of a door-delivery app.
The experience prompted me to reassess my life. It also sparked the first story I wrote in my debut novel, The Ten Percent Thief.
Titled ‘Analog/Virtual’, and set in a performance-obsessed world, a woman in her late-twenties grows reliant on running all her errands using apps, so she can maximize her productivity at work. But she underperforms at her job, is denied access to her tech as a consequence, and is forced to navigate a grocery store IRL. Her fear of real-world tomatoes echoes my own. And yet, the novel that emerged isn’t about her—or about me. We are a microcosm in our fragile worlds.
The Ten Percent Thief spills over with my concerns about the future. It’s equal parts urgent warning and social satire, examining the impact of technocapitalism and the climate crisis in near-future Bangalore, now rebranded Apex City. It also happens to be a mosaic novel, made from the jagged threads of over twenty protagonists, all struggling to find meaning in a ruthless, relentless reality.
As the voice of my first character hammered its way through my keyboard, it dawned on me that there was no other way this novel could be. She wasn’t a hero; she was just a woman trying to survive. And she was never going to be free—she was too entrenched in the system of social hierarchies, values and philosophies that framed the city around her. She wanted to belong, no matter the cost. She got me thinking about others like her, trapped in in invisible city-cages, unable to see the bars. And others unlike her, outsiders trying to redefine what the city could be.
Apex City is governed by a corporation, and its citizens are mapped onto the Bell Curve. Productivity and the right social persona can catapult individuals to the top twenty percent of society. As the Virtual elite, there’s limitless access to privilege—everything from climate control solutions to olfactory simulations. Fail to perform, and risk falling to the bottom ten percent—routinely deported from the city and branded Analogs, with no access to running water, electricity, or their humanity.
Visions of everyday people going about their lives under the all-too-real burden of the Bell Curve popped into my head, faster than I could put pen to paper, a kaleidoscopic image of this new reality. Millions of shimmering threads wove together into a city reflecting the sum of its parts, yet disregarding the brightness of the individual skeins for the greater whole; a vision straining towards perfection, continually mending any rips and tears or knots gone wrong, through any means possible. I wanted to shine a light on those individual skeins—its people—and follow their paths through the weave.
Over twenty different voices, their threads running in parallel, crossing over each other, cutting each other off, lending texture and color to each other, emerged on the page, one story at a time, knitting themselves into the narrative of a city. A city pushed to its breaking point and losing control. A city pummeled into submission by the climate crisis, struggling to prove its worth to its corporate overlords, its foundations crumbling beneath the burden of survival, trying to save itself. A city on the knife edge of something remarkable, teetering between evolution and annihilation.
Rebel, conformist, puppet master, pawn… each person unspooling before my eyes was made and unmade by the city that empowered them, liberated them, inspired them, oppressed them, judged them, broke them. And they all had the choice to build the city or tear it down. My mind held an infinity mirror, my heart a song of hope for this dark future.
The Ten Percent Thief first made its debut in South Asia as Analog/ Virtual, titled after the story where it began. It resonated with readers, who saw themselves—and the cities they came from—in its pages. Apex City is a futuristic projection of my hometown, and it retains some of its history, but it’s also a city on fire that could be anywhere in the world. Some of its people are like me, but they could also be you. All of them are stuck in a moment. Some will burn out; some will burn the future to the ground. If they could only come together, they might be able to save themselves, and build a better future. And so could we.