The Big Idea: Cassandra Khaw
Posted on September 9, 2021 Posted by John Scalzi 2 Comments
For the Big Idea for their novel The All-Consuming World, author Cassandra Khaw looks at life lessons, and how the reasons for them can be and frequently are different than we’ve been led to expect.
There are lessons that you are lucky to learn if you have the right friends at the worst times. One of them is that abusers, the ones who know how to hurt you on a molecular level, who make you stay lifetimes longer than you should, who whittle you down and make you forget who you are, forget there was a life outside of the pain they hand-feed you each day, weaponize your best qualities and turn them against you. They make use of your trust, your willingness to self-sacrifice, your patience, your hope, your faith in the people you care about. Hollywood tells us that abuse happens when we’re not strong enough, that we become victims when we’re too weak to walk away, too weak to say no, to burn it all down so we can grow a better life from the devastation.
That’s not always true.
Sometimes, it happens because we’re tough assholes who will weather anything for the people we love. Sometimes, it happens because we won’t break.
Maya, our protagonist, is the embodiment of this idea — she’s one of twelve criminals who call themselves The Dirty Dozen. Though all of her cohorts are trained for violence, Maya’s totally the main muscle, unafraid to die over and over again to accomplish her goals, and always ready to be recalibrated so as to be capable of even greater amounts of lethality. She acts like it too. Maya’s all bite in every social interaction, as happy with the profanities as she is with shooting down anyone who stands in her way. She’s a badass, but she’s also indelibly broken by the abuse she has sustained.
The emotional heart of the book centers around her engaging in that revelation, and also what abuse has done to her relationships with the people around her. In fact, a lot of the book revolves around scrutinizing the far-reaching effects of abuse, how it can subsume our identities, how it can force us to choke down our pain if everyone insists on acting like there’s absolutely nothing to worry about at all. It’s like that story of the frog steeping in hot water. Do it slowly enough, do it subtly enough, and no one will notice a thing.
But this isn’t all the book is.
I wanted The All-Consuming World to deal too with the complications of escaping such relationships, and what it can mean to escape them. For some, like Verdigris, it means making up for last time, embracing life with an impossible incandescence, drowning all the darkness you’ve accumulated in light. It can mean dedicating yourself to wanting, needing even, to extract others from similar pain, to be there for them when you can. For others, it can be much harder. When you’ve spent too much time with a hurt, you can forget what it is like to live without your agony. Pain can take up so much space inside you that it can hollow you out when it’s gone. Which is why some of us stay as long as we do.
A stranger asked me why I would write such a thorough examination of abuse, what was the point of it when it was the lived experience for so many reasons. I thought a lot about this, and I think at last I have an answer for that.
It’s because sometimes, we need to be reminded that we will survive this pain, that others have walked similar paths and come out on the other side. That the dark ends, that we get to be okay again.
That it isn’t always an easy process and sometimes, we stumble. Sometimes, we find ourselves turned out and in the place where we started.
But that’s okay.
Sometimes, life is like that.
I don’t know if everyone needs such things in their lives. But I know I did and that I wouldn’t have survived a lot of what happened to me if it were not for other people’s stories. And at the cost of sounding mawkish, I hope The All-Consuming World helps someone in a similar way too.
The All-Consuming World: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
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[Deleted because unrelated to the current piece under discussion. In other news, things that could be an email should be an email — JS]
The All-Consuming World:
Maya has died and been resurrected into countless cyborg bodies through the years of a long, dangerous career with the infamous Dirty Dozen, the most storied crew of criminals in the galaxy, at least before their untimely and gruesome demise.
Decades later, she and her diverse team of broken, diminished outlaws must get back together to solve the mystery of their last, disastrous mission and to rescue a missing and much-changed comrade . . . but they’re not the only ones in pursuit of the secret at the heart of the planet Dimmuborgir.
The highly evolved AI of the galaxy have their own agenda and will do whatever it takes to keep humanity from ever regaining control. As Maya and her comrades spiral closer to uncovering the AIs’ vast conspiracy, this band of violent women—half-clone and half-machine—must battle their own traumas and a universe of sapient ageships who want them dead, in order to settle their affairs once and for all.