15 September 2023
Sci-fi author Lavanya Laksminaryan describes how she created a cast of 20 characters in her mosaic novel (and managed to stay sane!)
When I wrote my debut novel, The Ten Percent Thief, I fed all my concerns about billionaire tech bro capitalism – the inanity and the absurdity alike – into its pages. I set the novel in near-future Bangalore, leant heavily into cyberpunk themes with a side of social satire, and unleashed my keyboard. As the words started to tumble their way out, I intuitively decided that this book needed to be a mosaic novel.
I ended up writing a cast of over twenty characters, popping in and out of my pages, each reckoning with their individual lives in the city while all coming together to leave their mark on its future. In my mind, this was the only way this novel could be. It would tell the story of a futuristic city, unfolding through the perspectives of a di-verse spectrum of people inhabiting it.
In The Ten Percent Thief, Bangalore has been rebranded Apex City, and is one of the last bastions of civilization in a world ravaged by climate change. It’s run by a technocratic corporation that maps all its citizens on the Bell Curve. High productivity scores, and the right social image and values, can catapult individuals to the top twenty percent of society – as the Virtual elite, they enjoy endless privilege and access to the latest technology. Non-performance re-ults in deportation – the bottom ten percent are routinely removed from society and branded Analogs, with no access to running water, electricity, or their humanity.
When an anonymous thief steals a jacaranda bud, and plants it on the barren soil of the Analog city, she gives rise to a revolution.
The Ten Percent Thief takes its title from her story, but the novel is not just her story. I want readers to experience what it would be like to live in Apex City, to be a fly on the wall at exclusive luncheons in the curated garden spaces of the Virtual elite, or listening to protest music playing in the dusty streets of the Analog world. I want readers to bear witness as people from all walks of life struggle to reckon with the unforgiving system that governs them. Ana-ogs and Virtuals, revolutionaries and conformists, power brokers and the oppressed, spun through my mind and made their way into the book.
I had a conspiracy board up on the wall of my study, littered with notes and post-its charting each character’s individual journey.
As a punishment for non-performance, a tech-dependent woman must navigate a physical grocery store without any tech shopping aids – she will be deported if she fails on her mission. A successful news reporter desperate for her next big promotion subjects herself to an invasive AI program that threatens her relationship with her romantic partner. A teenager dreams of being a pianist, but is forbidden access to technological learning aids because she’s been adopted from the Analog world. An outcast scientist is flung into the center of the Analog rebellion…
Each of these characters had a story to tell, unique to their past and their present. I structured my chapters to focus on them, usually one at a time. Many of them reappeared in other characters’ chapters, in secondary roles. Sometimes, their decisions had consequences that af-fected not just their own futures, but the wider world.
Detailed mind-maps linked their actions to repercussions. Every so often, a character would surprise me, and demand I give them a different role to play, throwing my plans for the novel off course. As you can imagine, writing this was like hopping on and off a merry-go-round, experiencing the hopes, dreams, and fears of myriad people, attempting to pin them down in a moment in time, and revisiting them to see if they’d changed as time sped ever onward in Apex City. My notes were extensive, they kept growing, they kept me sane.
And so did Apex City. It grounded me, the one enormous tapestry that wove all these threads I was spinning together. I grew up in Bangalore, and watched its rapid transformation into the Silicon Valley of India. I lived through the shifts in its culture – the good, the bad, and the ugly. I was part of its gaming and startup boom. I had a vision for what its future could hold. And all my characters spilled into this expanse, allowing me to peek into their lives and craft an insect-vision novel from them, fragments of a city coming together to create a mosaic of the future.
The Ten Percent Thief by Lavanya Laksminaryan is published by Rebellion (£16.99)
Consider how to build your own sci-fi world with advice from author Gareth Powell