“When the veil drops, it is both devastating and empowering. Reality awakens you to all you thought you knew, and the possibilities that arise from letting it go. It begins with facing the truth. Here’s ours: we are dirt.”
In The Ten Percent Thief, Lavanya Lakshminarayan immerses us in Apex City, formerly known as Bangalore, once the Silicon Valley of India and now governed by a technocapitalist meritocracy. The Big Brother of the tale is Bell Corp, a corporation that has created its own technocratic caste system by ranking individuals on its signature bell curve. Individual productivity and the virality of social media posts help to improve one’s score, propelling them toward the upper tail of the bell curve. But it’s not enough to reach the top percentile: citizens must continually strive toward perfection to maintain this privileged ranking. Bell Corp has a zero-tolerance policy toward failure: anything less than perfection is unacceptable.
The harshest dichotomy in the neo-caste system of the novel arises between “Virtual” citizens at the upper end of the curve and “Analog” individuals at the lower tail. The Virtuals enjoy a technologically privileged, purportedly utopian lifestyle. But in reality, this existence has taken the humanity out of humankind. Despite numerous technological luxuries, being a Virtual is a stressful existence, with the constant fear of becoming unproductive and sinking to a lower caste. Moreover, Virtuals are implanted with a chip that monitors their thoughts and nudges them toward making decisions favorable for Bell Corp.
In the lowest caste, Analogs of The Ten Percent Thief live an existence similar to our own with (gasp) face-to-face conversations, trips to the grocery store to buy food, and newspapers that are printed on actual paper. The Analogs are the new untouchables, treated like zoo animals by the Virtuals who observe them through glass but are forbidden from interacting directly. In a further act of dehumanization, Virtuals even refer to Analogs with the pronoun “it.” The Analogs who fall to the lowest part of the curve are considered beyond saving and are ultimately harvested for their organs.
The Ten Percent Thief is constructed as a set of interconnected short stories, shifting perspective among a diverse set of characters from both the Virtual and Analog worlds. Lavanya Lakshminarayan employs both first- and third-person narration to show us different facets of Apex City. My favorite chapter is actually told in the second person by an AI algorithm implanted in the brain of a Virtual news reporter, addressing the reporter as “you” from within her own brain. She struggles against the AI algorithm as it tries to optimize her as an individual. It is difficult to separate her own genuine thoughts from the whispers of the AI.
The point of view characters in The Ten Percent Thief include a Virtual schoolchild having contact with Analog society for the first time, a Virtual citizen who has become unproductive and demoted to Analog status, and a Virtual worker who compromises his own ethics to reach the upper echelon of the bell curve. We also see a Virtual social media influencer terrified of people discovering the truth behind her carefully crafted persona, a pregnant woman who defies Bell Corp’s draconian rules about procreation, and a group of Analog revolutionaries plotting to secure justice and equality for their people, including the titular Ten Percent Thief herself.
The Ten Percent Thief has an undeniable Orwellian flavor, with citizens constantly monitored and punished for any views that oppose those of their tyrannical government. It is especially interesting to read how the Virtual people attempt to control their own minds, pushing out any nonconformist thought and focusing their attention on corporate-approved ways of thinking.
Although it embraces all the familiar tropes of techno dystopian science fiction, The Ten Percent Thief shines because of Lavanya Lakshminarayan’s finely honed prose. Lakshminarayan succeeds in establishing emotional connections to the rotating cast of characters in each chapter, while providing a broader view of Apex City society. Lakshminarayan’s pacing is excellent throughout, with none of the chapters outstaying their welcome. The book ultimately circles back to the beginning, providing new perspectives based on everything we have witnessed in between.
The Ten Percent Thief is a deeply thought-provoking and timely novel that updates the traditional notion of castes for a near-future meritocratic society infused with artificial intelligence. The future caste system is every bit as rigid and frightening as the old system India discarded decades ago.