SFF Librarian Reviews
As a voracious reader, and as someone for whom science fiction and fantasy are part of my daily job as a science fiction librarian, I come across a lot of wonderful work in these genres. I love bringing to the attention of interested readers books and authors that bring me joy, some of which may have slipped below people’s radar, and I do so most months in The SFF Librarian Reviews series for ARB.
Let’s explore strange new worlds together!
The All-Consuming World. By Cassandra Khaw. Erewhon, September 2021.
It’s an interesting contradiction that beauty can be found in the most unlikely of places. In the case of The All-Consuming World (Erewhon, 2021, $25.95) by Cassandra Khaw, there are many moments of fierce, passionate, and beautiful connection in the midst of savagery and explosive, bloody violence. That’s not an easy atmosphere to achieve with any believability, but Khaw has more than managed it in their new space opera. Their title is more than appropriate, because everything about this book—the characters, the situation, the universe that surrounds them all—is indeed all-consuming. Everything is set at the raw limits of endurance, of restraint, of capacity, of emotion, of stakes. However, though this may sound exhausting, on the contrary, reading Khaw is emotionally rewarding both in its cinematic propulsion and in the depth they give to their deeply scarred, traumatized characters. As with the works of Kameron Hurley, I would never want personally to *live* in Khaw’s world (my chances of a gory, dramatic death are far too high!), but reading them is an intense (dare we say, all-consuming) experience that challenges and rewards the reader’s conceptions of justice, revenge, and how ends justify means (or vice versa).
In the future, humanity has gone to the stars, but we live under the eye of vastly complex and sentient Minds—AIs (some of whom personify as entire spaceships) with at best a paternalistic and at worst a murderous viewpoint towards their biological creators. Within the margins of this universe, humans struggle amongst themselves for the usual scraps that life offers them. Khaw’s compelling protagonist Maya is one of these struggling humans, and her past is more dramatic than most. Maya is one of the survivors of the “Dirty Dozen”, an all-female/genderqueer criminal gang notorious across the galaxy; the key to Maya’s continued survival, aside from her stubborn and savage spirit, has been her continual downloading into new bodies, always enhanced by exotic cybernetic implants. By story’s beginning, years have passed since the gang’s glory days, and many of Maya’s partners have retired, suicided, or been lost in murders gruesome beyond description. Maya continues to live what’s left of her life, always at the mercy of the gang’s leader, Rita. Rita is at once a nurturing and scarily controlling figure, who treats Maya as a tool and a weapon, forcing her via conditioning into a form of mental servitude disguised as love and devotion. Maya is damaged—physically and mentally—from decades of combat, multiple deaths, and witnessing bloody horrors beyond conception.
Maya’s life reflects the universe that Khaw has created around her—brutal and immediate. (In one of Maya’s first scenes, she engages in a hellaciously violent staged fight against numerous competitors.) The novel, in fact, is almost literally dripping with blood and viscera, with numerous scenes of both violent combat and clone rebirth and modification (death and birth). These details give the novel a real physicality and raw power and punch (also helped by the dizzyingly high levels of profanity Khaw chooses to deploy—this book may hold the world’s record for the use of variations of the word “fuck”). Physicality and the messiness of life is even extended to the robotic Minds, who bear names like the Thorned Queen and the Butcher of Eight, the latter of whom is described thus by the lesser Mind Pimento:
He cogitates on the possibility of doing as the Thorned Queen suggested, which is to abandon a missive in the station’s keeping and then flee again into the proverbial night. Easier this than confronting the fenestrated horror of the Butcher, scalding gore sheeting from the vertices of their crown. Only the Butcher of Eight has put so much care into replicating the casual aesthetics of slaughter. Their charnel-house avatar smells almost caramel, the unctuous wrongness of flesh blessed by the bright science of Maillard reactions. Never mind the aura of somatosensory unpleasantness which the Butcher exudes, a sensation of abraded skin and flesh crisping, of fillets carved from clenched obliques. Never mind the perennial echo of a scream in diminuendo layered gauzily over every interaction.
Khaw is a deeply and powerfully sensory author, and All-Consuming World asks the reader to make use of all five senses in order to fully experience it.
The plot of the novel is, essentially, a heist story, as the remnants of the Dozen get themselves back together for one last score (in this case, the legendary planet Dimmuborgir and the hope of a weapon there that will destroy the Minds before they can eliminate humanity). Old traumas are relived, old relationships rekindled and reconsidered, old loyalties and loves and betrayals remembered. Among the moments of pain come beautiful instances of female friendship and camaraderie that make Maya, Ayane, Constance, Verdigris, Elise, and even Rita come to life as truly bonded and multidimensional characters with pasts and real agency. In the end, the Dozen’s sense of determination, and their own power in the face of overwhelming, nearly omnipotent opposition, leaves the reader almost giddy with the limitless possibilities of human strength, even as Khaw takes pains to show how incredibly vulnerable we are as physical beings.
Jeremy Brett (he, him, his) is an Associate Professor at Cushing Memorial Library & Archives, Texas A&M university, where he serves as Curator of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Research Collection, one of the largest of its kind in the world.
This series was commissioned by editor Sean Guynes in October 2020. No review copies were arranged by ARB.