From the moment I first heard about this book I knew I had to get my hands on it, so when I saw an ARC was available to review, I did what I always do and snatched it up. The All-Consuming World by Cassandra Khaw was everything I was looking for, a lot more than I expected, and reminded me of a lot of older science fiction that existed to make you think rather than giving you a beach read just for entertainment’s sake.
This book was provided for free by Edelweiss and the publishers in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Edelweiss and Erewhon.
There are multiple abusive relationships in this book (physical and emotional). When the synopsis says the characters are working through their trauma, it is not a figure of speech, it is also not past tense. The abuser is very much still in play. Trauma is not treated as a plot, and I would suggest reading my review of the CYMERA festival to see Khaw’s thoughts on how trauma is treated as a subject in the media. There is also a lot of violence, violent language, some torture scenes, death, loss of limbs and physical trauma – keep in mind that the characters are mercenaries who are clones so death and damage to their physical forms happens often.
I first heard about The All-Consuming World by Cassandra Khaw at The CYMERA book festival from Khaw themselves. Their description of their novel blew me away. The novel itself sounded innovative, and the way Khaw described how trauma was perceived and covered in the media had me nodding along in agreement. As an abuse survivor, I needed to read a novel by an author that got it. That not only understood what trauma felt like, and what it did to someone, but how it needed to be shown for what it was.
Their acknowledgement of trauma was not the only thing that drew me to The All-Consuming World. I can’t quite remember how Khaw described it on the panel, but I ended up envisioning this cowboy(girl)-esque girl gang of clones who ran around the galaxy kicking ass and taking names. Then something big happened, and they all went their separate ways. Now someone is bringing the old gang back for one last mission.
Kick ass clones coming back together to kick more ass again? Throw in some creative AI world-building from Khaw who has a background in video game writing and yup, I am, totally there for it.
I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that has pulled me in so many directions when it’s come to opinions. I use a plugin for my reviews, and it has the option to divide a review into customised sections. I’ve never felt the need to use it until reading this book. There were parts of The All-Consuming World that I struggled with, primarily the hard science and technical parts. I’m not a huge fan of hard science fiction and while I could understand where Khaw was going with the cyberia aspects, some of it was a little too jargon heavy for me at times.
Thankfully, these sections of the book were just the right length in my opinion. They were enough to give context to the humongous scope of Khaw’s fascinating world-building in The All-Consuming World, which we need to remember doesn’t just cover a planet, it covers the entire universe. We’re in a future that is far past our one little earth, and probably our own little galaxy at this point. With that in mind, Khaw has given themselves a playground to challenge pretty much everything and unlike a lot of authors they have gone into the sandbox and gone wild. I use the gaming terminology, sandbox, because Khaw comes from a gaming background, and it shows in their writing. There is no hesitation to get stuck in and create something entirely new out of nothing. Here is someone who is not worried about whether it conforms with a genre; they’ve made their world and as long as it fits in that world then it works – which is exactly as it should be. It’s a lesson a LOT of writers need to learn.
In this universe, artificial intelligences rule. But these aren’t the type of AI’s we conjure up when we think of AI, they’re not the human exterminating kind or the robotic kind. They are completely sentient beings who are made of data. They grab voices and sound bites from the twentieth and twenty-first century to use as voices, they create avatars to give themselves a virtual or physical body. And they control the universe through various organisations, each one having its own fundamental beliefs, very akin to human civilisation. Humans still exist, although as clones or cyborgs rather than the humans we are familiar with. The AI’s, known as ageships, have mixed feelings about them. Some are enamoured with them, some hate them, some ignore them. The ageships aren’t that different from humans, save for that they’re made from data and instead of bodies and brains made of tissue, they are made of processing power instead.
How the universe came to be is not covered in The All-Consuming World, and it doesn’t need to be. The how and why isn’t important. It’s the who and the what, because this is a story about a group of people and how they interact with each other. It’s also very much a story about abusive relationships and manipulation, and it’s an important story to tell. Khaw captures the narrative of an abusive relationship perfectly. What people don’t realise is when you’re in a relationship that is abusive, especially emotionally abusive, you’re in a perfect world for most of it. Your abuser takes on the role of a saviour. They are the only person who understands you, who wants you or can handle you. Without them, you will be alone, and you are lucky to have them. With them, everything is complete and feels right.
In The All-Consuming World, the victim is emotionally and physically abused, and we watch as their perfect world begins to fall apart. It’s like if you’re wearing glasses/sunglasses, and it starts to rain, except in this case the drops of rain are problems with the relationship. You wipe away the first droplet, then the next, but eventually there are too many for you to keep wiping off, and you have to take the glasses off. It’s then that you realise that the lenses are tinted, that you’ve been seeing things wrong the entire time. You try to put the glasses back on, but they don’t fit quite the same way any more.
Khaw takes us through all those movements while the gang gets back together and starts planning one last mission together. There are secrets upon secrets, reveals and manipulations, and there is a lot of violence.
This is a violent novel in every way. From the language to the fight scenes, to the way it takes hold of societal and gender norms and tosses them out the window. In a previous review, I commented on curse words being overused and how there was no reason for them. In The All-Consuming World, I didn’t feel this at all. I felt like every single curse word was filled with emotion. They were punctuated with frustration, anger, fear, anxiety, desperation and so on. They have purpose; they are expression. In a world where clones are considered completely expendable, language is one of the few things these characters have complete control over. As a disabled woman who doesn’t have autonomy over her body, I completely understand that. When you don’t have control over aspects of your life you seize control anyway you can, and while to many people the violent language in The All-Consuming World seems unneeded, it’s actually a very clever technique employed by Khaw to show this.
One final thing I love about The All-Consuming World, and I haven’t intentionally left this to last, it’s just the way the review has gone; the cast is made up of genderfluid characters and queer women. There is not a male human in sight, there is only an AI called Pimento who identifies as male. With this in mind, I find it rather interesting that quite a few male reviewers have thus given this book a bad review, claiming it is “pretentious”. As AI’s, the ageships do not conceive gender identity the same way as humans do. Some of them choose a gender identity as an avatar preference, while others seem to flick between the two or even a combination of the two at any given moment. Human characteristics in general seem to be more of a game to them. They collect human aesthetical data, like we would collect items in a game to customise a character or avatar. It is both unnerving and fascinating, especially as they are able to whip out anything in seconds due to being computers with virtual bodies.
This is not a quick read or a beach read for entertainment’s sake. I studied Science Fiction Literature, and Cyberia and Psychobabble (two completely separate courses) at University level and The All-Consuming World reminds me of some of the texts we studied for those courses. I think there is this assumption that because something is fiction, it is going to be and has to be an easy read. That is not the case, nor should it be. The All-Consuming World is being promoted as recommended for fans of Ursula LeGuin and I would agree with that sentiment, I also found it reminiscent of William Gibson and Frederik Pohl.
As I mention in my review, I struggled with the jargon even though I quite literally studied Cyberia and Psychobabble at University level, so it does not surprise me that quite a few people did not finish the book due to this. I would urge people to try to move past it though as there is a lot more to the book and once you get past the initial technological confusion the character development is fascinating.
There is a lot to unpack in this book, and it’s designed to make you think, to react, and it’s not going to leave you with lots of warm fuzzy feelings at the end. There may be some, because it’s not all horror and blood, but like everything in The All-Consuming World it’s complicated.
Books by Cassandra Khaw
Interested in more books by Cassandra Khaw? Check out a selection of titles in my store.
Rupert Wong and the Ends of the Earth (Gods and Monsters#2)£2.99
Nothing But Blackened Teeth£4.68
These Deathless Bones£1.22
Hammers on Bone (Persons Non Grata #1)£2.08
The Last Supper Before Ragnarok (Gods and Monsters #5)£5.99
Food of the Gods (Gods and Monsters #4)£4.99
Rupert Wong, Cannibal Chef (Gods and Monsters #1)£2.99
A Song for Quiet (Persons Non Grata #2)£2.08
The All-Consuming World£9.02
Over to you
Thanks for reading my review for The All-Consuming World by Cassandra Khaw!
I’ll be talking about more books that discuss trauma, especially post-traumatic stress as part of the event I am currently hosting. GeekDis is a collaborative event for members of the disability community (by the disability community) to talk about disability representation in pop culture. Find out more here!
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