A motley gang of criminals must assemble for one last heist; of course, they did not part on good terms after the last job …
You may be familiar with this story, but you do not yet know it in the hands of Cassandra Khaw. They transform one last to burglarize The world that consumes everything: a visionary, crass and bloody sci-fi adventure, dripping with viscera, violence and beauty in equal parts.
This time around, the criminals are cyborg clones – grown and augmented for work, treated like second-class citizens, and, unless something goes wrong, functionally immortal. When their bodies wear out or get damaged, their minds are downloaded into a new body, as long as nothing goes wrong. “Work, die, mulch the corpses, put brine in the appropriate solution, bring them back. Rinse repeat.” Maya is the muscle and often our point of view character, loyal number two to the insensitive mad scientist Rita, the former manipulative leader who brings the Dirty Dozen – or what’s left of them – together.
The authorities determined to stop them are autonomous AIs called Spirits: relentless, alien, fascinating. A powerful faction of Spirit, the Bethel, believes that the physical world and data exist to be devoured. We also meet the enigmatic Merchant Mind – for itself, playing multiple sides to a mysterious ending – and Pimento, a Mind Surveyor who finds himself embroiled in politics. There is a third wrinkle: Elise, one of the two victims of the last robbery, is not exactly dead. Of course, she’s not really alive either – and it’s one of the hooks Rita uses to push the old team back, as well as the chance to figure out exactly what went wrong the last time around. .
For most The world that consumes everything, the reader does not know why the heist must take place now, nor what his target is. The real issues are slowly revealing themselves. Anyone who seems to have answers turns out to be an untrustworthy manipulator keeping everyone in the dark, so you’re pretty much in the dark too. Khaw’s characters are spoiled, raw, full of salt and vinegar, not always endearing but charismatic. The members of the Dirty Dozen have baggage, and Khaw does make you feel like a malfunction, oldy chosen family, foreigners steeped in history. There is little heat, but sometimes a flicker of lust that keeps you interested and adds to the tragic elements at play. Kudos to Khaw for the Minds, who thinks in terms that don’t fit how a species defined by biomaterial would think. They don’t feel like they’re trying to imagine what AIs would think if they ran the universe; they feel like IAs, ruling the universe. They are terrifying and awesome.
Let’s talk about the prose: it’s incandescent, in dense layers, adjectives and metaphors encrusted on the page and the mind’s eye. Although “encrusted” connotes static, this work is anything but static; it’s rather orchestral, in a constant breathless movement. “A Million Adjectives Attached to Mythic” is a description of one of the characters, but it’s also a pretty good description of Khaw’s writing. I love when the language is poetry, as it is here, and the syncopated mix of swear words, programming language, and incredibly realized images is intoxicating. Sometimes the language overwhelms the story, and with so many points of view and such a fast pace, it’s not always easy to keep up with the changes of scene. I found myself taking breaks as often as I found myself staying up late to read what happened next. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve done both of these things, but I do agree that less patient readers might walk away.
While immortality has indeed been achieved for the clone and the machine, who becomes real and who matters are questions this novel poses. It also thoughtfully examines whether it is possible to break free from schematics when they seem wired. You will not have a good idea of the location or the daily life in the universe of Khaw, but you will think about what makes a life and what is important. There is something to be introspective.
The world that consumes everything is a bloody heist story, gloriously punk and queer set in a disturbing and cold universe. It delivers thrills and questions. This is Cassandra Khaw’s debut novel, although they’ve already released a lot of short stories, and it’s an interesting addition to the sci-fi canon. The end is abrupt; a sudden stop. But it just seems like this story leaves you with unanswered questions and an uncertain future. The world that consumes everything going to consume your attention and linger in your thoughts, a really good ride and a remarkable what-if.
Jessica P. Wick is a California native and freelance writer, editor, currently living in Rhode Island.