Lavanya Lakshminarayan, The Ten Percent Thief, Rebellion Publishing, 2023
The Ten Percent Thief is a fascinating polyphonic scifi novel presenting a sharp social and political satire through slices of life.
In the near future, climate change has caused societal and governmental collapse. The city formerly known as Bangalore now belongs to a consortium which believes in a strict social doctrine. Twenty percent of the population belongs to the elite and they have reached this point by working relentlessly. At any point, they could slip to the seventy percent. Although they enjoy some of the privileges of the twenty percent, the seventy per cent all aspire to reach the upper social caste. The ten percent live outside the city, in squalor, without any tech or running water. But a thief from the ten percent caste steals a seed which becomes a tree. Of such symbols, revolutions are made.
The Ten Percent Thief is a series of short slice-of-life chapters, all presenting different characters. As you progress in the novel, you can see how those different stories are intertwined and some characters are recurring, albeit in a secondary role. Many of them will stay with you, whether it's the elite mother-to-be who cannot pronounce a single sentence in the chapter where her pregnancy and decisions are commented by everyone, or the adopted child who will spend her life trying to prove she deserves to live in an elite family, or ten percent kid who decides to join the revolution.
By using a close POV for each of her characters, Lakshminarayan offers us a glimpse into their inner lives and inner fears, laying bare a dysfunctional society obsessed with status and privilege, with people dying on the other side of the wall because they don't conform.
I have also particularly enjoyed the care with which Lakshminarayan paints the city, the glimpses of the old Bangalore--destroyed, repurposed--the architecture that reflects the highly hierarchical society, the empty streets because everyone lives in virtual reality, and, on the other side of the wall, the shanty town which is never described as "poverty chic" but which exudes a life and emotion the city lacks.
The future tech is neer the central focus of the chapters, but there's a wonderful inventivity to it--albeit, a perverse inventivity because it keeps the seventy percent and the twenty percent always yearning for its trappings.
The novel is very dynamic despite its unusual structure for an SFF book published in the UK. At the same time, it's full of emotions. Anger, yes, at a deeply unequal society and people who don't give a care, but also compassion at the weight they carry because those people cannot conceive another way of being. Lakshminarayan may paint a story for tomorrow, but the similarities with today are striking.
The Ten Percent Thief is an original novel that makes the most of its polyphonic structure. In doing so, Lakshminarayan gives us an exquisitely delicate tapestry that denounces--sometimes with humour and hope--the horrors of a tech-capitalist society in times of climate crisis.
Disclaimer: a free copy was received but with no obligation attached to review it.
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All reviews are spoiler free unless explicitly stated otherwise.
I only review stories I have liked even if my opinion may be nuanced. It doesn't apply for the "Novels published before 1978" series of blog posts.
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