Lavanya Lakshminarayan optimised her cushion covers

Interview with the game designer and author of The Ten Percent Thief

I have a love/hate relationship with the notion of ‘influences’ in books - e.g. the dreaded who are your influences? question to authors.

People only remember the ‘influences’ they want to remember. It disregards sub- and unconscious influences, which are probably more important, and it overlooks the role of ‘mass’ influences which are definitely more important. If you ask me, I’m influenced by Marshall McLuhan and Nelson Algren. Maybe a bit of Gaddis in there, if I’m feeling particularly smug. The truth is, half my ideas come from Piranha 3-D and the Dragonlance rulebooks. The other half bubble up from the background murmur of Paw Patrol or a YouTube preroll for Spellify(tm).

Also, it is a stupid question.

Rant aside.

When we talk about influences, we also tend to talk about the thing itself: the book or the author. What we overlook is the way the thing presents itself to us. This is, essentially, Marshall McLuhan’s theory of the medium and the message. The way we communicate changes the way we think. Or, in this case, the format of the media impacts the story contained within it.

Contemporary fantasy books, to take one small example, owe a lot to the rise of ‘prestige television’. This is slightly reductive, but imagine a generation of authors exposed to - influenced by - story-telling that relies on split perspectives and nonlinear plot; snappy dialogue, and episodic narratives with thematic arcs. It is isn’t that these things didn’t exist before Oz (et al), it is that the new Golden Age of television gave us a generation of creators who had the form embedded as the dominant influence. The tropes may be Tolkien, but their telling is The Wire.

(I’m eliding the role of cinema here - especially the big commercial blockbusters - but it actually fits rather gracefully in the middle of the spectrum. Plonk that in as you see fit.)

My not-so-hot-take: the next dominant influence will be (or is) gaming.

Video games are one of the largest media by any metric (time played, volume consumed, market reach, value of industry, etc). They’re also a very different form of storytelling. From this generation onwards, authors will be native gamers: people who grew up playing, exploring and designing immersive digital games.

How will games influence how authors tell their stories? Not necessarily the literal migration of mechanics (hi, LitRPG), but in terms of how storytellers build worlds, craft narratives, and develop themes. Even the process of how they produce creative work.

Let’s hear from an expert! Lavanya Lakshminarayan joins us to talk about what she took from being a game designer (and gamer), and how that influenced her work as a author.

The Ten Percent Thief, is a book I’ve written about before (and before that, too). As a mosaic novel set in a future iteration of Bangalore, the overarching story is told across a series of different perspectives: characters all with their own objectives to achieve and conflicts to resolve. The reader witnesses the ‘meta-narrative’ develop, but, to me, the real beauty comes from all of these beautiful, individual ‘side-quests’, with each story coming to life in its own right.

Jared Shurin: I’m starting all these interviews with the same, rather annoying, question. What does cyberpunk mean to you, personally? What’s your experience of it? How did you first encounter the genre?

Lavanya Lakshminarayan: I stumbled upon the idea of cyberpunk as a genre quite late, long after I’d consumed quite a lot of it. Growing up in India in the aughts, we didn’t have a strong sense of genre in our bookstores, apart from very broad labels—the classics, literary fiction, science fiction and fantasy, and so on. It was hard to pin down overarching movements in science fiction, so I wound up reading extensively with no real notion of its history or sub-genres. This was also at a time when there were just a couple of writers from India exploring the space, and when books that weren’t bestsellers were hard to find in the local bookstore.

So, quite unwittingly, I wound up reading Philip K Dick and William Burroughs, falling in love with The Matrix and Blade Runner, being immersed in Cowboy Bebop and Ghost in the Shell, with no idea that they were related to this genre called cyberpunk. Maybe I wasn’t surrounded by enough science fiction readers, or perhaps I was still reading from a liminal genre-free space, but it was only when I read Neuromancer about ten years ago that I started to put the pieces together and see the common threads running through this body of work. And that’s when I started actively seeking it.

To me, the lone-hacker-takes-down-a-big-bad-evil trope is a fantasy of agency. India, like a lot of the wider world, has a very societally-aligned culture, and exercising individualism is a privilege, especially when its intent is dissent. And I’m not even talking about criticising the government or being a whistle-blower—deeply personal decisions like wearing your hair short if you’re a woman, or eating meat, or being a stay-at-home-dad, are often held up to scrutiny against normative societal expectations. Apply this to every axis imaginable, and you’ll see that simply retaining individuality becomes an act of dissent. So when it comes to cyberpunk, the idea that you can drop out of society, possibly find other dissidents like yourself, and take on an entire system is a very powerful one. Even when I was unaware that cyberpunk was a genre unto itself, these symbols drew me in, and continue to do so.

And then there’s the tech, the many possible futures for humanity, the noir leanings… As you probably know, I have several criticisms of the genre, but on the whole, it’s just all-round cool.

You’ve been using your platform to shine a light on the amazing cyberpunk that’s being published all over the world right now. Why do you think cyberpunk is thriving so well as a global genre?

All my early encounters in cyberpunk—anime aside—were white-male authored, largely featuring cishet, white, male protagonists. Work that wasn’t reflective of this demographic seldom made its way to India; I discovered it far more recently.

If we go back to what I said earlier, about the fantasy of agency, it really felt like you had to be a cishet white man to be granted the power to rebel. This notion is slowly evolving with greater representation across gender, sexuality, race, and even geography. What constitutes agency changes depending upon how all these identities intersect. So as cyberpunk evolves to be more inclusive, you end up with this fascinatingly complex mirror to reality, where the nuances of power, and possibly dissent and revolution, can be explored. And more importantly, this multi-faceted mirror sparks hope that every individual, regardless of their intersectional identity, can bring about change in the world they live in.

When I look at English-language cyberpunk, something that strikes me as a game-changer for the genre is its more recent openness to narratives from outside the centre of its origin, namely from outside the United States. I’m always going on about this, but the future really does happen everywhere. The Global South has traditionally been excluded from what was earlier an elite club of futurisms, led by parts of the world that were considered ahead of the development curve.

To rapidly summarise history, colonisation was debilitating; the Global South has been playing catch-up for the last century. And over the last few decades, we’ve caught up to the popular notion of the evil corporation, belong to the so-called global village, have several homegrown tech bro overlords, often paired with totalitarian governments, as the far right rises across the world.

All the social disparities created by access to technology, the threat of surveillance, concerns over privacy and human rights are uniquely stark in different ways depending on what part of the world you’re in. Every single one of these perspectives is important when we’re dealing with the double-edged sword that is technology. I think there’s finally greater awareness that this is important because we’re all so connected, and that’s why I see the genre growing in relevance. It’s opening its doors to more perspectives, and in turn, inviting more readers to engage with it.

The glorious The Ten Percent Thief (née Analog/Virtual) is a mosaic novel set in Apex City - the Bangalore of an unspecified future. This is an annoying process question, but which came first: a particular story, a cast of characters, or the setting itself?

I love process questions; they let me indulge in some nerdery for a bit! The answer to this one lies in an eye-opening personal experience.

The Ten Percent Thief started with a single short story. I used to work full-time in the gaming industry, and I loved my career as a game designer. But everything you’ve ever heard about how fast-paced and high pressure the industry is—the insane work hours, the punishing deadlines—is true, with room to spare. I spent years hooked up to my devices; my laptop, a couple of consoles, my tablet and my phone were always close at hand. Gaming is like a flame drawing moths with nascent ambition to its glow. While I chased my goals down, I took to doing everything I could to optimise my time. I found ways to remotely run all my errands; whether it was buying groceries, or dry-cleaning, or even buying new cushion covers—if an app existed that I could plug into, I’d use it.

Burnout eventually caught up with me, as it does. I took a break from gaming, and while I was reacquainting myself with sunlight, I decided to step out into the real world and shop for groceries in a physical store. I was overwhelmed by seeing everything I could stock my kitchen with before me, all at one go. I’d become so used to menus and categories on a flat screen, to having my personal preferences tracked and recommended to me by an app, that the physical reality of being in an environment that featured produce in 3D was unbearable. It sounds dramatic because it is!

Imagine processing that tomatoes aren’t jpegs for the first time in ages—the cognitive dissonance was debilitating. I suffered a panic attack, escaped the store, and started to collect my thoughts in the days that followed. I realised that I’d become horrifyingly dependent on technology, and it was impacting my relationship with physical reality.

This led to me scribbling out a story titled Analog/ Virtual, which is also the title of the South Asian edition. It began as an exploration of the cognitive dissonance I’d experienced, but as it emerged on the page, it became the origins of a world. In my case, I’d failed to establish boundaries with my personal technology, but what if I didn’t have a choice? What if all my technology was invasive, mandated by an unforgiving system? This was the beginning of Apex City, run by the insidious Bell Corporation, utilising the Bell Curve as an algorithm applied to society. And of course, once I had these pieces in place, I had to go off and explore what the other people in Apex City were doing.

Was The Ten Percent Thief a ‘consciously’ cyberpunk work (and if so, why), or did you find the label applied?

As I wrote the first story, and it sparked the thought that this idea could be a novel, I knew it was going to be science fiction. I’d decided I was going to be a science fiction writer when I was eight years old. A book exploring our relationship with technology seemed like a great place to start.

I wasn’t consciously working towards it being cyberpunk, though. It’s interesting that it eventually took that shape, and that says a lot about the prevailing reality of our times, and how I perceive where we might be headed. I’ve lived in Bangalore through its period of massive transition into a tech hub—the concerns from everyday reality are so immediate here! I was prioritising those concerns while writing Apex City into the future of Bangalore, and the cyberpunk label came later.

As I reader, I tend to pick up anything that catches my fancy. This tends to frame my approach towards my own work; I prefer not to constrain it or label it while it’s being created, because I find that limits its possibilities, and my openness to the shape it can take as its creator. I prefer to leave its classification to publishers or readers.

When the book was published by Hachette India in South Asia, Analog/Virtual was positioned as literary science fiction, tending towards the dystopian. This is conjecture, but I think it’s partially due to the fact that cyberpunk is a really niche concept in India, and can immediately alienate readers unfamiliar with it. When Rebellion/Solaris picked it up for the UK and North America as The Ten Percent Thief, they positioned it as dystopian cyberpunk, possibly because the sense of the genre’s significance is so much stronger on that side of the world.

One thing that struck me about the book, and how you used the mosaic structure, is that it is (for the most part) a villain-free conflict. There’s empathy in there for everyone - from the ostensible overlords of Apex City to the revolutionary Analogs, and for the many, many people in-between. Who are the bad guys?!

I love thinking about this question because they were right in the foreground while I was writing The Ten Percent Thief.

Every human being is made up of myriad conflicts and biases, and whether a human being is good or bad depends upon the context in which one catches a glimpse of them, and the perspective from which one is viewing them. If one is an evil overlord, then the actions of other evil overlords appear heroic. In case I need to make it clear, I’m not making excuses for people who practically calcify in evil overlordship, but the lens through which they’re viewed changes how they’re judged. And what I’ve tried to do is write them with empathy, in order to present all my characters as human beings, viewed through mostly clear lenses, so readers might experience what their judgments reflect–not just about the characters, but also themselves.

Individuals in The Ten Percent Thief are assessed on the basis of productivity, and relentlessly thought-policed. It’s a ruthless system masquerading as an ideal one—its intent is steeped in fairness and mathematical assessment, but it has a rigid inability to empathise and adapt, which makes it deeply flawed, at least in my opinion.

As you’ve said, the overlords strongly enforce this construction of society so they can thrive, and the ones in the middle are complicit because they want to survive. What is desire or ambition in a world like this—is it world domination or survival? Does it matter either way if you must oppress people to get what you want? Similarly, while the Analog rebels have a just cause, they tend towards ethically questionable acts to achieve it. Do the ends justify the means? Who are the baddies if everyone suffers along the way?

If we look at the countless evil overlords running the world around us, in every conceivable sphere, there are millions of people buying into their ideologies, propping them up. I’m not talking about an inner circle of evil, alone; support extends all the way to more accessible acts like reposting hatred on social media, or micro-aggressions in everyday environments, with several degrees in-between. Why is there all this support for fundamental bad-ness? Nobody starts off evil; we’re all blank slates, so what catalyses a tendency to bad-ness?

In the context of The Ten Percent Thief, I didn’t want to build a conventional personification of supervillainy when there are so many layers to unpack in regular people, whose actions and perspectives change depending on their journey, whose everyday actions could lend to villainous consequences. If a million regular people all take minor baddie decisions that appear justifiable in their immediate reality, does that amount to one big baddie running the world? We don’t need outright baddies, if this is the case.

You’re also a game designer - and have worked on some games that are household names (FarmVille, Mafia Wars, etc). Do you approach storytelling - or world-building - in the same way across media formats?

I loved working as a game designer because it taught me how to frame the process of creating, almost de-romanticizing it, if you will. I’m a very structured writer, not just in a plotter versus pantser sort of way, but in terms of breaking down any project into stages, working on each chunk individually, and then assembling them, working within timelines, and all.

Timeboxing the different stages of my process helps me keep momentum going. It’s really easy to get stuck in a rabbit hole of research and not-writing, otherwise. I’m compelled to make decisions and move forward while I create my world bible, an outline, and my characters, though of course, all of this is subject to change once my characters take over and start demanding things of me.

Thanks to gaming, I’ve also learnt how to trust my gut on my decisions. It’s very difficult to quantify ‘fun’, and so you learn how to develop an innate sense of what creates it. That comes with experience, and is a very personal choice, but you’ve got to learn to trust your compass. I’ve also learnt how to let go—chasing perfectionism is running to stand still. In gaming, we’re so constrained by release dates that you have to be able to learn how to define what ‘good’ looks like. With writing, I know I’ve arrived at ‘good’ when the only edits I make involve tinkering with synonyms.

What have you learned about human behaviour from gaming that appears in The Ten Percent Thief?

I’m going to try and broadly summarize two of the biggest ones.

This might come off a bit bleak, but today’s society is largely structured around the pursuit of goals. Think of the classic example of a factory with an assembly line. Modern systems, whether they’re nation states or companies, don’t work too differently. The fulfilment of personal targets forms a large part of our meaning and purpose. We’re often tangibly rewarded for achieving them, and they lend themselves to the bigger picture. In school, getting high test scores means you get into a good university, which gives you a better chance of that high-paying job… work long hours, get that promotion, buy a car, buy a house, all while contributing to the economy, or national growth, or whatever overarching symbol you believe in.

Games aren’t that different—I’m generalizing here, but they tend to be structured around a simple, repeatable set of core actions that lead to the achievement of micro-goals, all of which add up to better skills and upgrades, giving you the best chance to beat that final boss. Games are wrapped in gorgeous animation and compelling storylines. A fundamental facet of humanity is its love for story, whether it’s the myth of nationalism or ‘help Mario save Princess Peach.’

In The Ten Percent Thief, seemingly simple actions like personal productivity and social conformity lead to the fulfilment of markers of success. These shape my characters’ sense of self-worth. The overarching myth they’re buying into is the Bell Corp ideology that individuals must earn their place in society. It turns society into a merit-obsessed bloodbath; if you can’t win, then why bother breathing?

One the sunny side, no two players play any game the same way. It’s possible to design for an ideal path through a game, or impose limits as the game’s designer, but impossible to predict where players will find workarounds or alternative solutions. Every single aberration is unique, a product of independent thinking and high intelligence. It’s the aberrations that lead to rebellion—in my novel, this isn’t just large-scale revolt like that of the Analogs, but also smaller acts of dissent, as demonstrated by the Virtuals. Games are a beautiful way to observe humanity. I’ve realised that human beings will always surprise you; that’s where I find hope.

For those that enjoy ‘Etudes’ in The Big Book of Cyberpunk, which of your other works should they read next? Besides The Ten Percent Thief, of course…

If you happen to read The Ten Percent Thief and enjoy it, then keep an eye out for my next novel, forthcoming from Solaris Books. I can’t say much about it, but it’s set in the far future and it delves into the future of food. Much like ‘Etudes’ looks at music as a reflection of culture and power, this one explores how food cultures are political, both dividing humanity, and hopefully, uniting us.

I also have a number of short stories out: ‘Less Than’, in Twelve Tomorrows: Communications Breakdown (edited by Jonathan Strahan, out from MIT Press this year) is about a woman attempting to navigate a socially-constructed ideal of womanhood. ‘Samsāra in a Teacup’ in Apex Magazine Issue 128 deals with the sudden reappearance of hate speech in an ideal society. There’s more, so find me on social media for more frequent updates!

Write the good bit. Seriously. Just write it. That bit that you want to write, that you’re saving up? Write it. It’s the most important moment in the book, isn’t it? So write it, and bend the rest of the book towards it, rather than retrofitting it to what you come up with along the way that’s less important.

A friend and I are reading The Big Book of Science Fiction, five stories at a time. This week involved Harlan Ellison and I went off on a bit of a tear.

TradWife as a type of self-annihilation. This is a fantastic/horrifying deep dive into a particularly unsettling trends.

An introduction to ‘infrastructure fiction’, by BBoCP contributor Paul Graham Raven. How we use the sandbox of design fiction on a topic as ‘deeply unsexy’ as infrastructure, and, importantly (in the theme of this week’s newsletter), thinking about not what it is, but what it means.

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