#REVIEW: The All-Consuming World, by Cassandra Khaw

First, the obligatory “My God, LOOK AT THAT COVER” moment. Go ahead, take a few, they’re free.

DISCLAIMER! Cassandra Khaw’s new novel The All-Consuming World does not actually come out until August 21. I found out that copies of this and her other upcoming book were available through Netgalley the other day and jumped, immediately, and got lucky, and then rearranged my reading schedule so I could get to it as quickly as I could. I have read three previous works by Cass Khaw, including her Hammers on Bone, which was #3 on my Top 10 list for 2016. I think that The All-Consuming World is her first novel; it’s definitely the first novel-length work of hers that I’ve read.

I’ll not bury the lede: my favorite thing about Cassandra Khaw is not her characters or her stories, but her writing. Of all the writers I currently consider myself a fan of, and there are dozens of them, she is the one whose writing abilities I would most like to completely absorb and use for my own dastardly purposes. Her writing is gritty and visceral and verbose in a way that is perfect for either Lovecraftian body horror or what we used to call cyberpunk, and All-Consuming World has elements of both, and my God was this book a joy to read.

Now, that’s kind of a problem as a reviewer, because it’s highly unlikely that I’m going to dislike anything Khaw writes because what she’s writing about is almost irrelevant to me. I’d read a recipe book cover-to-cover if Cass Khaw wrote it. But precisely because she is so stylized an author, I can easily imagine my opposite as a reader out there; I’ll read anything she writes because of how much I like her writing, but there are going to be people out there who are going to bounce off of her style, hard. Toss in the legitimate body horror elements (one character keeps a gun in her ribcage for part of the story) and the fact that the word “fuck” is at least a quarter of one particular character’s dialogue and this becomes a “not for everybody” book. But for me? My god, smear it on my face.

Right, the plot. As if that matters. Here’s the blurb, it’s as good as anything:

A diverse team of broken, diminished former criminals 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 universe have their own agenda and will do whatever it takes to keep humans from ever controlling the universe again. This band of dangerous 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. 

And, like, okay, that’s what it’s about, I guess? But this book is more about how it tells its story than the story it tells. The description leaves out that all of the members of the team are at least nominally women (one of them is nonbinary in a way that is either immensely sloppy or really interesting, because I could not figure out what the deal with … that person’s pronouns was at any point in the story*) and most of them are immortal and several of them die during the book and that’s not a spoiler because it’s also not a problem. I think Maya alone goes down at least three times. I think one of them is technically dead for the entire book? Maybe two? No more than two characters are dead for the entire book.

There’s a lot going on here, is what I’m saying. Pre-order this book and read it immediately when it comes out. If you like good things you will like it.

*The character is sometimes he and sometimes she, and will bounce back and forth between both sometimes in a single paragraph, and I either missed the explanation or just couldn’t figure out what the rules were.

On Captain America and racism

First things first: I’ll keep this as spoiler-free as I can, and really, Episode 5 of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is not really an episode that can be spoiled, but something minor might slip through here and there if you haven’t seen the episode yet.

So, the whole thing about this show is this extended meditation– and, to put it out there, it’s a process I’ve very much enjoyed– on what the idea of Captain America is, and on what America itself is, and what it means when America’s so-called ideals don’t match up with America’s actions. We’ve been repeatedly reminded that the super-soldier serum makes you more of what you already were, and we’ve had the moral exemplar of Steve Rogers hovering over the entire show as someone everyone on the show is trying to live up to. Left unclear is whether Rogers is actually still alive; Sam and Bucky have both used the word “gone” for him several times, and everyone else thinks he’s dead, but I don’t know exactly what the situation is there.

They’ve done a good job of making John Walker a character who people can empathize with to some degree without making him sympathetic, I think, and it’s clear and getting clearer by the moment that he’s not up to the job of Captain America. But is anyone? Is Sam, who Steve Rogers actually gave the shield to, worthy of it? Is Bucky, for that matter, who doesn’t seem to want the job but also seems more than anyone else in the story to need there to be someone out there called Captain America? (Bucky, by the way, has served as Cap in the comics. So has Sam.)

And then there’s this specter of racism that’s hung over the entire show. Early on, Sam and his sister Sarah are denied a loan by a bank officer. He blames it on the effects of the Blip, and of course they leave that frisson of deniability in there, but you wonder. There’s Isaiah Bradley, a Black man experimented on in the process of developing the super soldier serum and later locked in jail and forgotten. Walker literally tells Sam to his face that America will never accept a Black Captain America– and, hell, judging from the reaction when he was Cap in the comics, America had a lot of trouble with a comic book about a Black Captain America. And then there’s Walker himself, a less-than-great white man propped up by a Black wife and a Black best friend, introduced to a screaming crowd by a Black marching band, and who only has the shield in the first place because a Black man gave it up and the government stole it.

All this is leading into me wondering why the hell Bucky and Steve aren’t big racists.

Now, okay, I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right: these versions of those characters can’t be racists, and that’s why they aren’t. Marvel needed Chris Evans’ Captain America to be all-caps-and-italics CAPTAIN AMERICA, and while Bucky is allowed his dark side, what with the decades of murdering, we still need him to be sympathetic and a hero. Both Rogers’ and Barnes’ man-out-of-time thing is played mostly for laughs and nothing else; Cap doesn’t understand pop culture references and doesn’t like to swear, and Barnes read Lord of the Rings when it first came out, because he’s a hundred and nine damn years old. So we’re just going to choose to ignore certain aspects of being a white man in 1945 who suddenly wakes up in 2015 (or whatever year Captain America: The First Avenger was set in) and is immediately confronted with a Black man in a position of enormous power and has absolutely no questions about it. Bucky Barnes grew up white in Brooklyn in the 1930s and 40s but he has a date with a Japanese girl in the first episode and has immediate chemistry with Sam’s sister in the fifth, and never once treats his Black Best Friend ™ with a drop of paternalism or condescension or anything.

Well, okay, he won’t move his seat up, but I don’t think that counts. And maybe you’re wondering Wait, Luther, are you seriously saying that every white person in the 1940s was a racist? To which my answer is, yes, I absolutely am saying that, at least by modern-day standards. And Steve and Bucky haven’t had eighty years of changing society to drag them along, they got plucked out of one timeline and dropped into another with no time to adjust in between.

But, to be clear: I don’t actually want Bucky accidentally dropping the n-word about Sam’s sister and having an episode where he apologizes. I don’t want Steve Rogers calling the Black Widow “Toots,” or blowing the Scarlet Witch shit for being Jewish, assuming she actually is Jewish in the MCU, which is sort of up for debate.

But it would be damned interesting to see a sort of What If? or Elseworlds-type series where Cap gets brought back by the type of person who is always holding up the forties and fifties as some sort of American Golden Age, something we should try to get back to, only to find out that the guy who was such a big hero in World War II is a massive asshole by anything approaching modern standards. The Ultimates universe leaned into this a little harder than the regular Marvel universe ever has; their Cap was jingoistic and a sexist and a whole lot of other things, but it was mostly played for comedy and/or shock value; what I’m looking for here tilts closer into villainy, and I want to see a story where America’s reaction to Captain America is part of the story. They got into that a little bit when Sam Wilson became Cap in the comics, now let’s see what happens when Steve Rogers himself is held up as this great guy and turns out not to be. What if Cap came back to modern-day America and rejected it? What if America rejected him, and said this is not who we want to be?

It’s been fun to think about, at least.


A quick social media note: I shut down my Facebook and Instagram accounts yesterday, at least temporarily, and as such blog posts won’t be shared there any longer. We’ll see if this hurts traffic or engagement on the site; you can still share posts yourself with the social media icons below, and sign up for email updates somewhere in that list of boxes on the right there.

On masking up

Some good news: the mask panic attacks, after four days at school where I had to have one on for hours, appear to be subsiding. I have ended up landing on this one as my preferred mask, and the only complaint I have about it is that it rides up on my eyes a little more than I’d like it to, so I’m probably touching it and adjusting it more than I would like to.

I’ve been thinking more lately about what it’s going to mean to be “done” with Covid. It’s been made pretty clear that there’s a certain subset of the population who are going to have to be dragged kicking and screaming into vaccination, and to the best of my knowledge there is as of yet no shot that has been approved for use with middle school kids. So masking up at school is likely to remain a thing for a fair bit of time longer than masking up in general is going to be, especially since I live in a red state.

Thing is, it’s not like the masks are doing my kids any good, because as I suspected they cannot be convinced to wear them properly. Four days of in-person instruction in, I have reminded kids to cover their noses or their mouths with their masks approximately 123,425,208 times. And I’m probably still not doing it as often as I should, because there is literally someone without their mask on properly in my classroom 100% of the time, even with our current seriously-reduced number of students. I think I’ve been pretty consistent about this from the beginning: I hate wearing a mask, and wearing a mask genuinely fucks with me, but I’m going to do it anyway for as long as it’s necessary to do it. But hell if it’s not difficult to conclude that it’s safest for me to keep wearing one at work when I’m fully vaccinated and the kids around me are wearing theirs in a way that is literally not doing any good at all.

In general, I’m trying to be attentive to how much of my current behavior is reasonable and how much of it is basically quarantine-driven paranoia and, frankly, claustrophobia. I think it’s reasonable at this point to say that if you’re outside, unless you’re having a conversation in close quarters, you’re probably all good, and even in the building I tend to not put my mask on until I actually see another human being– if I can make it from my car to my classroom without wearing it, and frequently I can, I don’t put it on. But how long is it going to be until I feel okay going into a restaurant again? Like, I don’t even really have a guideline for what might make me decide “okay, this is all right now.” I got invited out for a drink with a couple of other teachers after work on Friday and turned it down. I’ve turned down multiple other such invitations over the course of the year. And I don’t even know what the plan is for when I might decide that sort of thing is okay again.

Actually, I do know one thing that would help: I don’t think there’s a solid consensus yet on whether vaccinated people can spread the virus easily. I know I’m not immune to catching Covid, it’s mostly just that if I do get it it is much, much more likely to be a minor case. But that doesn’t mean I can’t spread it to my father-in-law if I end up asymptomatic, and I’d prefer not to spread it to any strangers, either. But, like, if I spend the next six or seven weeks in a poorly-ventilated classroom and in near-constant contact with middle school kids who aren’t wearing their masks right (because, again, none of them wear their masks right) and don’t catch it, I feel like that’s pretty good evidence that I can at least, like, go to the store without having to wear one. Sitting in a restaurant? I dunno. Going into the gas station to buy a candy bar and pay for my gas and leave? When there’s plexiglass between me and the dude behind the counter? Is that okay?

I dunno. I’m kind of talking in circles about that, but that’s because I’m thinking in circles about it too. I need the people who are making this a political issue to walk into the ocean so that the rest of us can come up with a reasonable set of standards for when we let our guard down a little bit, and if they’re not going to walk into the ocean, the least we should be doing is employing government snipers with dart guns to vaccinate these idiots so they can stop fucking things up for the rest of us.

Biden should put that in the jobs plan, as a matter of fact.

Aaaaand I’m out

Well, that didn’t last long: I had planned on spending most of the day sitting on my computer in the office working my way through the course I was supposed to complete for the IU thing, and instead I lost patience with it immediately and quit the IU thing. I suspect, but cannot prove, that there has been a massive hemorrhage of people they’d hired for this this week once everyone looked around and realized what they’d signed up for, and I’d rather just quit now than get two or three weeks in and either bail after I’d spent actual time and effort on it or fall for the sunk cost fallacy and stick around just for the stipend. The $2500 would have been nice, but I have always valued my time far more than my money, and this simply wasn’t worth my time.

Y’all, I’m tech-savvy. I’ve had jobs recently where explaining tech to people was basically all I was being paid for. But what made me hit the brakes on this thing was hitting a point in this course where they wanted me to do the following:

  • Acquire (somehow) a Canvas account that allowed me to create courses;
  • Use that account (that I don’t have) to create a course that
  • Used my teacher account (that I also don’t have) on another site called Perusall so that I can
  • Copy material from the Canvas course I’m in right now in order to
  • Create assignments from the material already posted in that class which
  • No one, anywhere, will ever look at and then
  • Reflect on what the assignment has taught me.

Adding insult to injury, this entire process was labelled “optional,” but it was made clear at the beginning of the class that if you wanted any PGP points (useful for license renewal) for this process you had to do all the optional parts.

Could I do all of this? Absolutely. Maybe. I don’t actually have a way to create a teacher account in Canvas, at least not without using my work Canvas account for it, which I’m not going to do. So that could have been challenging. Am I going to jump through all of these hoops– the instructions were three screens long– to create an assignment that isn’t going to do me any good at all? On Saturday? Nope. I’m not. And most people are not remotely as good as I am with tech stuff, and the dizzying array of different accounts we were supposed to be creating and monitoring for this thing was too much for me.

So, yeah. Looks like I’ve got a bit more free time than I’d counted on for the next nine weeks. I almost wish I could watch this thing from a distance, fly-on-the-wall style, because as I said I think I’m far from the only person to look around and bail on the spot, and I think the whole thing is going to end up messily imploding in short order. I removed myself from the Google Chat room we were supposed to be doing all of our team communication in (yet another account I had to create) so I can’t keep an eye out, leaving only a GBCW post in my wake letting them know I was done. Good luck, y’all.

On silence

At some point during the school day yesterday, some young-dumb-full-of-cum dipshit (or, hell, maybe it was a girl, so just young and dumb) decided that it would be a good idea to scrawl an unspecified (as in I don’t know details, and frankly wouldn’t share them) “threat” against the building in one of the bathrooms. Whatever the threat was, it was apparently going to happen today. A letter went out to all the parents and, unsurprisingly, attendance was abysmal today.

Did I take it seriously? Not really. School shooters and teenage bombmakers (and, again, I have no idea what the details of the threat are) are wealthy white boys whose parents don’t secure their guns, and that’s not the demographics of my building. My wife asked why they didn’t simply switch to e-learning for the day, and the answer is frankly that if we were to do that we’d start seeing these things weekly, and that’s not a thing anyone is interested in. I remember when I was in high school a neighboring district that did quite nicely match the “we have school shootings” demographic went through a similar thing– their kids learned that bomb threats meant they got to go home, and they were averaging a couple a week for a while there.

At any rate, nothing happened. If they know who made the threat (and they probably have a good idea, as there are cameras near every bathroom entrance in the building) I haven’t heard about it yet, but nothing happened. No real surprise.

I have to say, I could get used to the idea that my classes are only nine or ten kids. One of my students commented to me on my second day back that he thought I must hate him, and when I asked him why he said that he was so squirrelly and talking all the time and had such a hard time focusing. And, like, first of all, no, I’m not even remotely close to “hate” for any of my current students and I think there’s only maybe three or four in my entire career that I’d apply that word to, and second of all: dude, yeah, you’re a handful, but there’s only one of you. The rest of the kids in that class are fine, and I can deal with one kid bouncing off the walls if he’s not one of half a dozen. That’s no problem at all.

(Truth be told, I genuinely like all of my kids this year, or at least the ones I know. That doesn’t happen terribly often, but I can manage a kid I just don’t click with just fine.)

At any rate, I didn’t get the impression that the kids today were especially scared or nervous, although I did send an email to the boss before school started suggesting that maybe they think about rescheduling the planned fire drill to next week sometime, a piece of advice that was followed. What I got was six class periods of silence. Maybe not the entire period, but definitely once they got settled down, each of my classes today had at least 10-15 minutes of complete and utter quiet. Which would make most teachers happy. Not me. I actually really don’t like quiet from kids that are working, although I need it during instruction. I prefer a low buzz, where I can keep half an ear open at all times and have an idea what everyone’s doing. It was too quiet today, spooky-quiet, and it’s interesting to think that this year might be the last time I have in my career where something like that happening again is likely.

And now, having dodged spoilers all day successfully, I’m off to watch The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. See y’all tomorrow.