Lavanya Lakshminarayan’s The Ten Percent Thief is an innovative work of fiction which I think could only ever be told as a sequence of interconnected short stories, rather than as a more traditionally structured novel. Set in the dystopian state of Apex City, the twenty stories of The Ten Percent Thief gradually piece together an expansive portrait of the sprawling far-future world in which the book is set—a technocratic meritocracy run by the corrupt organization known as Bell Corp (so named after the mathematically defined bell-curve from which this corporation models itself).
Having long ago replaced the nations of the world (in the wake of the environmental devastation brought about by climate change), Bell Corp has, as the novel begins, ruled over Apex City for hundreds of years, and maintains a strictly policed social order segregating all of humanity according to an algorithmically defined productivity score. In this system, individuals classified as belonging to the most productive upper twenty percent of Bell Corp’s citizens are rewarded with unparalleled social status and luxury, while those residing in the seventy percent below are granted only the barest minimum required to survive. Below the seventy percent are the impoverished ten percent, social outcasts otherwise known as “Analogs,” who are denied access to all but the most basic technology and are often forced to live in the near-inhospitable desert climate that exists beyond Apex City’s electrified walls.
It's in this bleak context that Lakshminarayan’s twenty stories slowly illuminate a resistance against Bell Corp that is actively emerging amongst the lowest-status members of this society. Headed by the half-mythic figure of the Ten Percent Thief (a woman otherwise known to her close followers as Nāyaka), as the novel opens it’s revealed that this resistance has secretly built a computer network via technology stolen from members of Apex City’s seventy and twenty percent. Nāyaka and her followers are now actively preparing to use this network to hack into Bell Corp’s advanced infrastructure to destroy the corporation from within, and in so doing replace it with a more equitable form of government.
This sort of story might very easily have been told via the framework of a more traditional novel rather than through a set of linked narratives, but I think the resulting book would have been a conflicted one. A recurring theme throughout the stories of The Ten Percent Thief is the way in which any system of authority, whether that be Bell Corp’s algorithm, which ranks individuals based on their productivity score, or Nāyaka’s resistance, which seeks to overthrow Bell Corp by any means necessary, is a structure which almost by definition must exclude those experiences that it has not been designed to process. For this reason, as Nāyaka’s resistance against Bell Corp advances toward the date of its planned revolution, the novel constructs its larger story not through the eyes of a single protagonist whose place in the narrative defines the importance of all other characters by proximity, but instead through the eyes of dozens of distinct and outwardly unrelated individuals for whom the revolution looming on the horizon of this world is often of secondary concern, if they are aware of it at all. The result is that, while The Ten Percent Thief on the whole tells the story of Nāyaka’s revolution against Bell Corp, it is the day-to-day lives of each of the novel’s individual characters that are of foremost importance to the reader. In this way, these stories collectively examine the limitations of each individual narrative when viewed on the whole.
The story which starts off the sequence is also the one with which the volume shares its title. Beginning in one of Apex City’s impoverished Analog communities, the short story that is “The Ten Percent Thief” introduces Nāyaka as she makes one of her routine forays across the electrified force field with which Bell Corp segregates the lower status Analog districts of Apex City from the higher status Virtual counterparts. Functioning almost more as a vignette introducing the novel’s setting, “The Ten Percent Thief” details how Nāyaka sneaks onto the private property of one of Apex City’s top one percent, while also providing the reader with a commentary introducing the various social divisions and political forces which govern this world. When discussing the history of how Bell Corp rose to power, Nāyaka says to the reader:
It is immaterial that Bell Corp's system of governance came as a welcome relief to the ruins of an erstwhile civilization. It seemed optimal—even utopian—for a world divided along social and communal lines, faced with the breadth of dwindling resources and hostile climate, to be redesigned.
Every system believes itself to be the perfect solution.
This sentiment repeatedly emerges in the ensuing narratives, with the novel simultaneously raising the quiet but lingering point that perhaps even Nāyaka’s own revolution against Bell Corp—however necessary it may be—could one day fall prey to the very same forces of systematization to which she now stands opposed.
This critical approach to systems is directly reflected in Nāyaka’s actions in this opening story, since she spends the majority of it working to steal the seed of a single tree from the garden of one of the top one percent (Bell Corp having declared that plant ownership is a luxury afforded to the super-productive only). Yet rather than being a materially integral part of Nāyaka’s plan to overthrow Bell Corp, the theft of this seed is ultimately shown to be a symbolic representation of her defiance of the organization’s philosophy. The theft of the seed does not materially serve the interests of any one organization or cause (even Nāyaka’s revolution); its theft is simply the ultimate negation of the heavily systematized worldview she opposes.
From these beginnings, the novel switches rapidly between the perspectives of dozens of separate characters living at all levels of Apex City’s society, and in the process explores experiences which exist beyond—but, critically, are not disconnected from—the paradigms of both Bell Corp’s rule, and Nāyaka’s impending social revolution. In one story, “Monsters Under the Bed,” a rising seventy-percent employee of Bell Corp named John Alvarez considers undergoing a brain-altering procedure via a household artificial intelligence. The aim of the procedure is to increase his chances of being awarded a coveted promotion at Bell Corp, but this will come at the cost of erasing all favorable mental associations he harbors toward his past as a former member of Apex City’s ten percent. In another story, “Analog/Virtual,” a severely depressed woman named Anita attempts to meet the demands of Bell Corp’s cheerful yet exceedingly patronizing “Productivity Improvement Programme,” lest she be reclassified as an “Analog” and forcibly deported from her home.
Meanwhile, amongst the higher status twenty percent, there are stories of individuals who lead opulent yet no less fraught lives defined by Bell Corp’s rule. “The Persona Police” follows a successful celebrity and soon-to-be mother named Tanvi who suddenly faces a catastrophic personal and professional backlash when she implies to a hairdresser that she is considering giving birth to her future child naturally (that is, rather than have the child transferred to an artificial womb that would ensure she can continue working for Bell Corp throughout the duration of her pregnancy). Meanwhile, the story “Avatars” takes an unexpected turn into the realm of open comedy, when three successful social media influencers are granted coveted (and compulsory) seats at a prestigious in-person awards ceremony celebrating Apex City’s “Best and Brightest,” and must go to increasingly absurd lengths to preserve the anonymous online identities upon which their careers depend.
The ways in which all of these stories are presented, with each narrative standing entirely on its own, allows the novel on the whole to gradually merge together into a blur of contrasting experiences that in turn coalesce into a larger story. As the date of Nāyaka’s revolution against Bell Corp draws closer, an aura of foreboding permeates the book. While the uprising against Bell Corp is undeniably necessary, the violence that this revolution will likely entail is also something which is difficult to accept now that we as readers have been introduced to the many individuals who will likely endure its consequences. This awareness of how all these individual lives exist alongside one another comes to be a defining quality of the novel as a whole, with The Ten Percent Thief allowing all its stories to exist on their own terms, with apparent contradictions and points of disagreement quietly reconciling as the broader narrative draws towards a conclusion which is inherently ambiguous.
There’s one story in particular which I think provides something of an encapsulation of this quality, and that is “Études.” Following an orphaned ten-percent girl named Nina, who is adopted by a well-meaning twenty-percent couple, “Études” charts Nina’s early childhood and teenage years as she navigates an unjust education system, all while she prepares for a citizenship test that will determine whether or not she is allowed to remain in Apex City when she becomes an adult. Eventually, thanks to the dedicated support of her friends and foster parents, Nina manages not only to pass this test, but also to gain admission to a prestigious program on which she will study a genre of classical music called neo-Acousta.
This musical genre is one that appears in an earlier story in this collection, “Monsters Under the Bed.” In that narrative, the protagonist John Alvarez seeks to have his brain patterns artificially altered so as to enable himself to appreciate this musical genre. Neo-Acousta, in contrast to the lower-status genre of electronic music which John genuinely loves, is frequently enjoyed by members of the twenty percent whom John is so desperately seeking to emulate so as to advance his career. Yet while “Monsters Under the Bed” depicts neo-Acousta as being a musical form which requires John artificially to torture his brain into appreciating, in “Études” Nina’s love of neo-Acousta is something that she pursues wholeheartedly as a form of self-expression. Not only does she choose early in this story to name herself after a prominent neo-Acousta composer; the music itself, which she can pursue due to the loving support of her foster parents, comes to represent for her a kind of haven from the external stresses she faces. In other words, “Monsters Under the Bed” and “Études” explore John and Nina's contrasting interactions with the same cultural touchstone: while John is unable to see the value of neo-Acousta, to the point that he is ultimately driven to erase his love of an alternative genre of music so as to feign appreciation for this form, Nina’s love for this music in part derives from the support and security it represents for her. Rather than seeking to privilege one view of neo-Acousta over another, the novel instead acknowledges both as valid perceptions of this music—and by extension of the cultures to which it belongs.
In the same way, The Ten Percent Thief itself explores how all of the book’s characters, despite living in the same cultural space, still effectively inhabit entirely separate worlds. When the day of Nāyaka's revolution against Bell Corp finally arrives in the novel's last story, “Ants,” the barriers which have defined these worlds vanish, and with them the barriers which the book itself has maintained between the experiences of its protagonists. The result is a fascinating and disorienting montage of overlapping perspectives, detailing how all of the previously introduced characters are forced to confront the reality of how close to one another's worlds their own lives truly are. In the process, both the story that is “Ants” and also the novel that is The Ten Percent Thief demonstrate not only how each individual's experience of Apex City is whole in and of itself, but also how, when viewed as a collective, it is paradoxically incomplete.