Personhood, Privilege, and the Virtual: Lavanya Lakshminarayan on Her New Dystopian Novel
In Conversation with Brenda Noiseux and Rob Wolf on the New Books Network
Lavanya Lakshminarayan’s novel, The Ten Percent Thief, presents a vision of the world gutted by climate and population catastrophes. In the aftermath, Apex City, formerly Bagalore, rises as a corporation-backed city focused on meritocracy, where everyone is mapped on the bell curve based on their productivity, their social personas, and their social image, and their values.
The city is divided between Virtual and Analog societies. The top twenty percent are the elite Virtuals with endless access to the latest technology and best quality of life, the middle 70% are doing their best to get into the top twenty percent, and the bottom ten percent are routinely deported from the city and sent to the Analog society, where there no access to running water or electricity are among only a handful of their problems. With productivity ever-changing, the threat of being sent to the Analog society is a persistent strain on citizens of all ages and strata.
It’s a mosaic novel with over a dozen characters who share how their access to technology, or lack thereof, dramatically changes how they interact with the world and its impact on their quality of life. “I think it is problematic that a lot of our technology comes to us in a very top down manner, and it’s predominantly based on a certain set of aspirations or values,” says Lakshminarayan. “There’s so much focus on that and so little focus on the implementation of technology where it could be most helpful.”
From the episode:
Brenda Noiseux: At our opening chapter with our Ten Percent Thief, Nayaka is our first look at this world, and then she infiltrates one of these elite areas. She’s taking something from them. It’s innocuous and it doesn’t really mean much to the people who live there. And she has this great moment where you have her pause and say, it can’t be this easy.
Lavanya Lakshminarayan: I was going for exactly that feeling because the way I’ve structured the world in The Ten Percent Thief, the elite are so secure and so cocooned in their bubble of privilege that they can’t see anything past it. They honestly feel invulnerable, at least in terms of their privilege. The rest of the world is invisible. They are completely self-centered. They’re highly unaware. And yet, what ends up happening later on as a consequence of stealing that very tiny thing is that they tend to lose their minds when they start to feel like their security is being threatened.
Brenda Noiseux: One of the fascinating things about this book is how you’ve shown the lengths at which the Virtual society will go through to keep that comfort, that security, and that sense of, “We deserve this. We belong here. Don’t be an analog. Analogs or other analogs are lesser. Analogs may not even be people.” Can you talk a little bit about why you chose some of those touch points that you did?
Lavanya Lakshminarayan: I felt like it was important to showcase this ultimately privileged society that convinces themselves of how much they deserve that privilege by dehumanizing and reducing the personhood of those people who do not have privilege. So with each of these instances, you categorically see the Virtual is treating the Analogs not just as the other, but almost as if they are not human. Although there are a bunch of instances, the chapter, Welcome to the Machine, where these children are taken to, and I’m quoting from the book, “Observe the Analogs in their natural habitat.” That reduces them practically to objects where you can watch them, I don’t know, poke them, see if they’ll respond. But no, don’t really poke them, because what’s reiterated through the book is that they are dangerous and you don’t want to upset them. There are a whole bunch of negative stereotypes surrounding the Analogs as if to be not privileged is their fault because they didn’t try hard enough and that makes them not worthy of being treated like human beings. That’s what I was trying to bring out through that story, where the kids go and see these Analogs. It’s sort of like teaching them young that this is what happens when you fail. You will not deserve things when you fail because you are a bad citizen, which is, you know, it’s pretty stark.
There’s a story named Etudes. It’s about a young girl who is adopted from Analog society into Virtual society. The story begins with the person who runs the adoption home, constantly referring to her as It because she doesn’t deserve personhood. She doesn’t even deserve a they/them pronoun.
Brenda Noiseux: I love that you brought up Etudes, because I think that story in and of itself is beautiful. But then there is a story that comes later in the novel where it just shifts your entire perspective of how you feel about the home. You do this quite often. You have these beautiful stories and heartbreaking stories or funny, but also terrifying stories and then you learn this throwaway line in another story that just changes how you (the reader) thought about it.
Brenda Noiseux: There are some stories where they take time to unravel but then there are other stories where you’re on the nose; you’re not holding back any punches. What was an example where you’re like, No, I’m not going to couch this. I’m not going to leave it to your own interpretation. I want you to fully understand what I’m saying?
Lavanya Lakshminarayan: It’s a tricky one for me to answer, honestly. I think one of the stories I felt most strongly about was Avatar. It’s a story about three women who are social media influencers. Their true identities are anonymous and they are invited to an in-person event and they do not want to go because they don’t want to reveal their identities for a whole bunch of reasons which are specific to each individual woman. I felt like I was pretty on the nose because I feel very strongly that in the world that we live in, where our privacy is so dubious, you can never take it for granted. I feel like the need to respect people’s privacy is incredibly important.
Brenda Noiseux: We know that the Virtual city, Apex, is not the only city of this type in this world; we do get hints or glimmers of other ones. How does Apex City fit into the greater whole of what the world looks like?
Lavanya Lakshminarayan: The way I imagine it in the novel is that there are these pockets. One of them is Bangalore and the other one is Singapore. There’s London, there’s Berlin, San Francisco. Effectively pockets right now that are centers where we could see a lot of emerging technology and new waves of tech development. They’re the only ones who really survived because arguably they’re the only ones to have found the kind of privilege it takes to survive a climate catastrophe. This framework of cities is in constant communication with each other. They’re all run by the same conglomerate, which is the corporation that runs Apex City, and they all function on similar principles.
Brenda Noiseux: I think the idea that the tech centers are the ones that survive is an interesting differentiator from a lot of science fiction, where we tend to just think of major cities.
Lavanya Lakshminarayan: I did want to do that very intentionally because I wanted to talk about places where there’s possibly just enough tech lurking, as opposed to the great historically romantic cities of the world, places where there might just be tech around because there are massive startup economies. I feel like the best bet to survive a catastrophe might come from the initiative that it takes to create a startup, but not necessarily the way startups are structured right now. I feel like if you took the kind of energy that it takes to create a startup and invest in looking for solutions to really make the world a better place, really addressing those concerns, I think there’s potential there.
Lavanya Lakshminarayan is the author of Analog/Virtual: And Other Simulations of Your Future. She 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, both prestigious literary awards in India, and her work has been longlisted for a BSFA Award. She’s occasionally a game designer, and has built worlds for Zynga Inc.’s FarmVille franchise, Mafia Wars, and other games. She lives in India, and is currently working on her next novel.
Brenda Noiseux hosts New Books in Science Fiction.