Review of Extreme Fabulations: Science Fictions of Life

Review of Extreme Fabulations: Science Fictions of Life

Mattia Petricola

Steven Shaviro. Extreme Fabulations: Science Fictions of Life. Goldsmiths Press, 2021. Hardcover. 192 pg. $24.95. ISBN 9781912685882.

According to its author, Extreme Fabulations is “a thought experiment” (1). More precisely, this experiment unfolds as an attempt to establish a dialogue between science fiction and the hermeneutical tools developed by modern and contemporary philosophy. Thus, Extreme Fabulations further develops the lines of inquiry that Shaviro inaugurated in his 2016 monograph Discognition. However, whereas Discognition explored the notions of consciousness, thought, and sentience, Extreme Fabulations focuses—as the title suggests—on how we can conceptualise, perceive, and reimagine the very idea of “life.” Shaviro’s argument starts from a compelling definition of science fiction as “counter-actual” rather than “counter-factual,” in the sense that “it offers us a provisional and impossible resolution, suspended in potentiality, of dilemmas and difficulties that are, themselves, all too real” (2). An “extreme fabulation” can thus be seen—even if Shaviro does not provide a clear definition of this expression—as a narrative that pushes the limits of our understanding of what “life” is while tackling the dilemmas that spring from this cultural and cognitive reconfiguration.

Each of the eight chapters that make up Extreme Fabulations investigates such dilemmas through an in-depth study of a single work of science fiction. More specifically, Shaviro provides close readings of Charles Harness’ 1950 short story “The New Reality”(chapter 1), Adam Roberts’ 2015 novel The Thing Itself (chapter 2), Clifford Simak’s 1953 short story “Shadow Show” (chapter 3), Ann Halam’s 2002 novel Dr. Franklin’s Island (chapter 4), Nalo Hopkinson’s 2005 short story “Message in a Bottle” (chapter 5), Chris Beckett’s 2012 novel Dark Eden (chapter 6), a 2016 concept album by the hip hop group clipping. entitled Splendor and Misery (chapter 7), and Gwyneth Jones’ 2017 novella Proof of Concept (chapter 8). Since each chapter is a perfectly self-contained whole that can be read independently from the others, Extreme Fabulations resembles an essay collection rather than a monograph. The presence of a conclusion would have probably made Shaviro’s argument somewhat better-rounded; on the other hand, the book’s structure makes it easily accessible to scholars and students who are specifically interested in one or more fictional works among those examined by Shaviro.

Chapters 1 and 2 focus on what Shaviro calls “Kantian science fiction” (21), that is, on works that defy the ontology of life (in other words, the conceptualisation of what life is) as elaborated by Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781). “The New Reality” and The Thing Itself provide Shaviro with an opportunity for discussing the difficult and somewhat marginal position of ontology in contemporary thought (which devotes much more attention to phenomenology and epistemology) and, more importantly, for exploring how science fiction can allow us to “poke around outside” (29) the categories that, according to Kant, structure human cognition and perception.

Chapters 3 and 4 shift the focus to science as a Foucauldian power-knowledge system and to how it conceptualises, controls, and policies life. Shaviro’s readings of “Shadow Show”and Dr. Franklin’s Island represent valuable contributions to both posthuman theory and monster theory, since they investigate how science fiction can thematise and challenge our conception(s) of the human. Shaviro is particularly interested in how the two texts shatter the old vitalist view of life as a ‘spark’ in favour of a non-anthropocentric view of life as a pervasive process of animation involving both human and non-human beings, as wells as in how they deconstruct the idea of the ‘great chain of being’ while moving towards an anti-hierarchical and networked conception of life.

In chapters 5 and 6, the ‘dilemma’ of life is approached from the perspectives of aesthetics and anthropology. Shaviro’s study of “Message in a Bottle”—an Afrofuturist story about an art exhibition that will take place in the storyworld’s remote future—is centred on the idea of futurity and interrogates how we can conceive of life as something that extends beyond the present and into a future that can be imagined, questioned, and colonised. Dark Eden, on the other hand, is read as a work of “speculative anthropology” (116). In his analysis, Shaviro discusses the notion of ‘speculation’ by comparing its applications in science fiction and in evolutionary psychology, ultimately arguing that the former are far richer and more complex than the latter.

Chapters 7 and 8 draw from the arguments developed in the previous chapters and apply them to the speculative representation of social oppression. More specifically, Shaviro interprets the narrative developed in the album Spendor and Misery in the light of Kim Stanley Robinson’s notion of ‘anti-anti-utopia’, thus arguing that “it is better […] to ’set up a random course’ into the unknown than to stay with what is reliably oppressive and deadly” (147). The study of Proof of Concept finally interrogates the continued presence of capitalist realism in a future society and how speculative fiction can imagine alternative scenarios in a world that cannot be reformed.

Throughout his essays, Shaviro consistently adopts a twofold argumentative strategy. The fictional texts chosen as case studies are both compared with earlier science/speculative fiction narratives and read in the light of specific concepts drawn from modern or contemporary philosophy. Extreme Fabulations thus deploys an extensive hermeneutical toolkit ranging from the aforementioned Kant’s Critique and Foucault’s biopower to Quentin Meillassoux’s correlationism and Maurice Blanchot’s limit-experiences, from Eugene Thacker’s notion of ‘dark pantheism’ to Deborah Levitt’s concept of ‘animal apparatus,’ from the speculative realist philosophy of Graham Harman to Lee Edelman’s queer theory. This toolkit is further enriched by the presence of notions derived from physics (Einstein, Schrödinger, and two interpretations of quantum mechanics), biology, and finance. This complex theoretical framework, however, never makes the reader feel overwhelmed. No in-depth knowledge of philosophy is required to enjoy the essays, and every new concept is introduced with clarity and conciseness. As regards the comparison with other works of science/speculative fiction, one of the aspects that makes reading Extreme Fabulations from cover to cover particularly compelling is the fact that it proposes, in a series of arguments disseminated throughout the book, many elements for what could be called an anti-Lovecraftian monster theory. More specifically, this theory aims to demonstrate that “[i]f we want to get away from anthropocentrism […] we need to give up our Lovecraftian visions of the implacable coldness, emptiness, and unconcern of the universe” (38).

To sum up, Extreme Fabulations provides a stimulating and refreshingly original perspective on the conceptualisation of life in science fiction that will offer new ideas and lines of inquiry to both students and scholars working on science fiction, the posthuman, and monster theory. It would be fascinating, for example, to further explore the idea of ‘Kantian science fiction’ and find other works that might fit this category, or to understand how Shaviro’s arguments could be adapted to media other than literature and music and to works outside the anglophone world.

Mattia Petricola received his PhD in comparative literature in 2019 from the University of Bologna and has been a postdoc research fellow in comparative literature at the University of L’Aquila (Italy). His research interests sit at the crossroads of speculative/fantastic fiction, thanatology, intermedial studies, and queer theory. He has published articles on Philip K. Dick, Peter Greenaway, the notion of spectrality in media studies, and queer theory. In 2021 he edited a dossier entitled What do we Talk about when we Talk about Queer Death? for Whatever. A Transdisciplinary Journal of Queer Theories and Studies.

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SFRA Review is the flagship publication of the Science Fiction Research Association since 1971.

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