An Interview with Lavanya Lakshminarayan

Lavanya Lakshminarayan is the award-winning author of The Ten Percent Thief, a dystopian science fiction novel set in a future version of Bangalore known as Apex City. Lavanya is a Locus Award finalist and is the first science-fiction writer to win the Times of India AutHer Award and the Valley of Words Award. She has also been nominated for the BSFA Award.

Lavanya’s short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines, including Someone In Time, The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction (Vol. 2), and Apex Magazine’s International Futurists Special Issue. Her work has been translated into French, Italian, Spanish, and German.

She is also a game designer and has built worlds for Zynga Inc.’s FarmVille franchise, Mafia Wars, and other games. I recently had the pleasure of discussing with Lavanya about The Ten Percent Thief, her approach to writing, and her future plans.

The Ten Percent Thief[GdM] Thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview with Grimdark Magazine. Your novel, The Ten Percent Thief, was one of my top books of 2023. Could you tell us about the background of your dystopian sci-fi debut?

[LL] Thank you so much for your kind words, and for taking the time to do this interview with me, John!

The Ten Percent Thief has its origins in my hometown—Bangalore, India—which went from being a laidback little city to a bustling metropolis, the heart of tech and start-up culture in India. This transformation took place in the span of a decade (and spare change) while I was growing up. It inspired starry-eyed dreams of economic growth and opportunity, being included in the global imagination, billion-dollar start-up ideas and all.

Riding this new wave of hope, I worked in videogames straight out of university. Gaming is a high-pressure industry, and I’ve always been an ambitious workaholic. After a string of successes, I eventually burnt out, and found the space to observe the world around me, without the overarching pressure to perform and be productive nonstop.

Now, I love this city I live in. Drop into a coffee shop and there are start-up founders prepping for investor meetings, user tests in progress, and conversations about virtual reality, AI, robotics, space exploration… all the future you could ever want, all around you. The economy is growing, and the city is more multicultural than ever before. It’s genuinely very cool, and nothing like the limited ideas of life in India that generations have been raised to believe in.

But for all that, traffic in the city is a dystopian nightmare, we’re facing a terrible water crisis as we speak, and the effects of climate crisis are palpable in everyday life. And given the scale of the population, those who get to be part of this exciting futuristic conversation belong to a bubble of privilege, living side by side with millions who have limited, if any, access to a smartphone or other “basic tech,” and all the access and opportunities that come with it.

Finally, coming back to the burnout I experienced. It’s everywhere. It’s impacting people’s lives, their health and happiness, because everyone is so hard-pressed to make it in a world of ever-growing demands on their time.

Take rampant social and economic disparity, pair it with the capitalist system we find ourselves unable to escape—escalating costs of living and all, throw in a side of the raging climate crisis, and pop it into a world that’s driven by hustle culture… I found myself witnessing the story of a city, and I followed it into one of its possible futures.

[GdM] The Big Brother of The Ten Percent Thief is Bell Corp, a corporation that has created its own technocratic caste system and has a zero-tolerance policy toward failure. Do you view the expectation of perfection as a growing issue in a society drenched in social media?

[LL] We live in a very polarized world, where our capacity for dialogue is dwindling. In my view, social media serves as a platform to amplify the dominant philosophies of our time, in all their polarizing capacities, with a massive side of big tech’s algorithms running interference. We could be talking about large-scale political opinions before an election, or truly personal choices, like parenting methods, and these conversations and confrontations that were once limited to one’s family and friends take place with complete strangers, before a live audience. And everyone has their view of what constitutes “perfection.”

The fear of criticism and conflict is a massive undercurrent in this space. I think this generates a great deal of pressure to conform to a certain kind of “perfection”—once you’ve declared where you stand, you need to constantly perform this stance or you’re subject to scrutiny.

To err is human. To have differences is what makes us unique, and dialogue is the only way to resolve them. Sadly, there’s little room for conversation or second chances. But like I’ve said, this is a symptom of the times we live in—what we need is more empathy. Social media has the potential to be shaped the same way reality does. We just need to try harder and be kinder.

[GdM] Bell Corp has created a harsh dichotomy between “Virtual” citizens at the upper end of their curve and “Analog” individuals at the lower end. The Virtuals enjoy a technologically privileged, purportedly utopian lifestyle. But in reality, this existence has taken the humanity out of humankind. On the other hand, the shunned Analogs live an existence with face-to-face conversations, trips to the grocery store to buy food, and newspapers that are printed on actual paper. Could you give us some more insights on how you developed the details of this neo-caste system imposed by Bell Corp?

[LL] I modelled Bell Corp’s vision of a successful life along similar lines to what we consider success in the present day. The capitalist system we live within pits us against each other, conditions us to work harder, outperform, get that big raise, keep climbing the ladder towards the new car, a bigger house, family vacations in exotic destinations, and maybe, someday we’ll be able to afford to go to the moon. It’s also designed to trip us up in innumerable ways at every turn. And this is what the Virtual elite have to deal with—to simply be is never enough; there’s always more to be gained, and everything to be lost.

I wanted to reflect upon that hollowness. Apex City is an extreme version of what I view as our reality. Most of the Virtual elite are steeped in privilege, but their lives are stressful and unrewarding; their social connections are perfunctory, usually competitive, occasionally even recommended by algorithms based on networking advantages; their internal worlds are limited by the heavy propaganda and thought policing they’re subjected to. Sadly, I see this as a reflection of the human condition.

With the Analogs, on the other hand, I wanted to mull over what might happen if we were stripped of everything we possess and left with nothing tangible to fight over. Like John Lennon’s Imagine, except there’s nothing utopian about Apex City. Entirely organically and much to my surprise, while I was writing, the Analogs on the page came together as a community, sorted out their differences of opinion, and took on the real challenges facing them. Call me an optimist, but if we were to drown out all the noise, perhaps there’d be hope for us, too.

[GdM] The COVID-19 pandemic also had an isolating effect on individuals throughout the world, many of whom craved the traditional in-person interactions experienced by the Analog class. Was this also part of your rationale in developing Analog society, or was that just coincidence?

[LL] It was an entirely bizarre coincidence. I wrote most of The Ten Percent Thief back in 2018, before COVID shook the foundations of our reality. It was first released in South Asia in February 2020 with the title Analog/ Virtual, two weeks before India went into lockdown with the first wave of COVID.

I was horrified. I’d written what was effectively a prophecy of doom, and several aspects of it were coming true all over the world. The social and economic disparities in India had never been starker. There were migrant workers walking hundreds of miles back to their hometowns because transportation was shut down, at the height of summer. So many children without smartphones couldn’t go to school online, access to healthcare was often dependent on access to social media—it was a mess, a dystopia based on tech disparity come true.

And of course, it was terrible for everyone with technology, as well, in entirely different ways. In the weeks and months that followed, readers all over the country got in touch to tell me they were identifying with the struggles of many of my characters, and that the book was helping them find moments of hope. That was bittersweet; you always hope your work is going to resonate, just never in the light of a global catastrophe.

[GdM] I love the structure of The Ten Percent Thief and how we view this dystopian society from so many different points of view through their interconnected stories. Could you tell us your thought process in developing this format for the novel?

[LL] Thank you for your kind words! When I started writing about Bangalore’s transformation, I was working out my own relationship with technology and the city I lived in, and that took the form of a short story titled Analog/ Virtual, which is now a chapter in the book.

As I thought about the new textures of this city, and how they co-existed with, reshaped, and occasionally, stamped out its existing identity, it dawned on me that I wanted to tell the story of its future. And that meant telling the story of its people—as many of them as possible, from as many walks of life as this book could hold. They popped up in my imagination in throngs, all going about their everyday lives, and I followed each of them down the proverbial rabbit hole.

I think the threads of this story emerged as I turned it over in my mind, prizing it apart and reassembling it in a dozen different ways. It became clear to me that no single character could reflect this city in its entirety. So, I kept adding perspectives, and sought to weave them all together, in the hope that they’d represent this city in all its variegated complexity.

[GdM] I also love how you employ first-, second-, and third-person narration across different chapters of the novel. How did you choose which type of narration to use for each chapter? Do you have a favorite point-of-view character from the novel?

[LL] Thank you again!

I think my choice of narrative voice is quite organic. In general, I tend to live in all my characters’ heads for a bit, and wander through their lives trying to figure them out, long before I set words to paper. To me, it always feels like I’m getting to know them so I can figure out how to tell their story right. Narrative voice then becomes a deeply personal decision, based on what I believe I know about each character. I’d like to think that I’m respectful of how closely they’d like to be viewed.

I like to leave room for readers to figure out my characters, as well. I constantly ask myself: How much of this person do I reveal to the reader? Where does the reader get to judge, or empathize with, or praise or condemn this person’s choices? In this novel, especially, I wanted to leave room for readers to form their own conclusions about everything that’s going on. And that helped me settle upon the closeness, or distance, with which to write each perspective.

It’s tough to choose a favorite, though. I had a ridiculously good time writing “The Be-Moji Project” in third-person omniscient, because it gave me the chance to zoom all the way out and simply paint the absurdity of the world my book is set in. But my favorite point-of-view character is probably the second-person AI algorithm named M.I.M.E.S.I.S. in “The Seven-Year Glitch.” Getting into their head and writing in their voice gave me the creeps.

[GdM] My favorite chapter in The Ten Percent Thief is the one told in second-person narration by an AI algorithm implanted in the brain of a Virtual news reporter, addressing the reporter as “you” from within her own brain. It is difficult to separate her own true thoughts from the whispers of the AI algorithm, which is constantly trying to optimize her human brain. With AI an increasing presence in our lives, how do we draw that line between appropriate and inappropriate use of artificial intelligence?

[LL] This is a lovely coincidence, considering I just mentioned the AI and the story in question!

There are a few key problem areas surrounding present-day AI. I wrote an essay on gender-biased design in AI, which can be found at The Fantasy Hive. The TL: DR is that there are biases all the way down—not just in terms of the information an AI program is trained on, but with the teams building these programs, themselves. And that impacts entire learning frameworks. Dominant representation is skewed toward the white, male demographic, and most development is housed in the United States. Biases creep in along the axes of race, gender, sexuality, geography, culture… it’s a long list, and at this point, it appears to be more harmful than good.

As I always say, technology is a tool, and it all comes down to the intention with which it’s designed, and how we choose to wield it. And right now, that intention doesn’t seem to be ethical. We’ve been witnessing a laundry list of copyright infringements across art, literature and music. There don’t appear to be legal protections against this, which is completely absurd. Additionally, the popular tech-bro framing of AI as a “shortcut” to achieving all your weekend warrior dreams is completely unethical, heightened by the total disregard for copyrighted material.

If AI were designed to augment and not replace the value of humans or the human imagination; to assist in essential areas that are often under-staffed or under-funded, I could see a place for it. Sadly, many of the corporations that want to fund its development don’t. We need to demand legal and ethical safeguards first, before we can really assess the best way to develop and implement this tech.

[GdM] In this age where the art of writing is under threat from AI, what advice do you have for young authors working toward publishing their first book?

[LL] The prospect of AI is scary, and there are going to be a million different terrifying things on this journey. The world around you is fluid, and you can’t control where it’s going. You can only control your experience of it, so focus on yourself. Ignore the noise—all of it—and keep going. Believe in the worth of your work, and the unique capacity that only you possess to write this very book you’re working on. Persevere because it’s a long road, and it always has been. And good luck!

[GdM] The Ten Percent Thief has an undeniable Orwellian flavor, with citizens constantly monitored and punished for any views that oppose those of their tyrannical government. Beyond George Orwell, who were some of your other influences in writing this novel?

[LL] This is always a tricky one for me; there are so many influences, across media, that go into everything I create. With books, I recall being fascinated by the structure of The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury and China Mountain Zhang by Maureen F McHugh, Revenge by Yoko Ogawa, and Central Station by Lavie Tidhar. Philip K Dick, Kurt Vonnegut, Douglas Adams and Samit Basu, with all the elements of satire in their work. Ursula K Le Guin, philosophically speaking. There’s an homage to two to Aldous Huxley in there, too.

I’m also always influenced by the colours of the music I listen to. Going into this novel, there were shades of OK Computer and Kid A by Radiohead, Simulation Theory by Muse, Philip Glass’s Heroes Symphony, Mahler’s Fifth, and a lot of Stravinsky and Wyschnegradsky at the back of my mind.

[GdM] Could you tell us more about your work as a game designer? What was the most fun project that you worked on?

[LL] I loved working as a game designer, despite how intense and demanding the job can be. Games are an absolute passion; I’ve always said I’d still be designing them full-time if books weren’t my one true love.

I’ve had the incredible opportunity to work on all kinds of games—supermassive worlds with extensive narratives in Mafia Wars and FarmVille, intricately designed word games, indie games on blockchain, and even augmented reality games that involved custom 3D-printed battle robots. My friends and I actually designed and 3D-printed these robots, and had a playable prototype we’d playtest with curious strangers at coffee-shops.

I’ve worn many hats over the years. In addition to being a game designer, I’ve done everything from social media management to game production, which is project management on steroids. It’s hard to pick a favorite project because I’ve worked with many brilliant teams, and really, it all comes down to teamwork. But I do have favorite project phases. I’ve always loved the excitement going into prototyping—it’s all the anticipation of producing a proof of concept, based on a framework you’ve put down on paper. And then there’s the run down to the finish line, when you’re adding final touches and polishing your work—bug scrubs, playtests, and that huge push through to a release, when you’re with your whole team, all waiting to go live. Such a head rush!

[GdM] Thanks again for taking the time to do this interview with Grimdark Magazine. What’s next for Lavanya Lakshminarayan in 2024?

[LL] Thank you again for such a great interview, John! The paperback edition of The Ten Percent Thief just made its way out into the world, and is available wherever books are sold. I have a few short stories forthcoming, and I hope to make it to WorldCon in Glasgow.

And if all goes according to plan, my next book should be out in the second half of 2024. It’s about the future of food, and I’m excited for it to find its way to readers!

This interview originally appeared in Grimdark Magazine Issue #38.

Read The Ten Percent Thief by Lavanya Lakshminarayan

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John Mauro

John Mauro

John Mauro lives in a world of glass amongst the hills of central Pennsylvania. When not indulging in his passion for literature or enjoying time with family, John is training the next generation of materials scientists at Penn State University, where he teaches glass science and materials kinetics. John also loves cooking international cuisine and kayaking the beautiful Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.

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