Humanity Crash Test: Review of Extreme Fabulations: Science Fictions of Life by Steven Shaviro
Extreme Fabulations. By Steven Shavrio. Goldsmiths Press, August 3, 2021.
Steven Shaviro is a familiar figure for all those academically interested in speculative and science fiction. An all-around thinker, philosopher, and critic, he has written a number of books, articles, essays and blog entries centered on this specific literary genre. Like Baudrillard before him, he reflects on the media, themes, and identities of the genre and its connections with our everyday life.
Extreme Fabulations is a collection of seven chapters or essays loosely linked around themes pertaining to the post-modern and post-humanism fields such as anthropocentrism, speciesism, politics, media, social criticism, Prometheism, Artificial Intelligence, historical narratives, and genetic engineering—to name a few. The book is based on the close reading of a collection of various science fiction narratives: three novels (The Thing Itself by Adam Roberts; Dr. Franklin’s Island by Ann Halam; Dark Eden by Chris Beckett), a novella (Proof of Concept by Gwyneth Jones), three short stories (“The New Reality” by Charles Harness, “Shadow Show” by Clifford Simak, “Message in a Bottle” by Nalo Hopkinson), and a hip-hop concept album along with its videos (Splendor and Misery by clipping).
The common thread of these works is the angle they offer on philosophical and ethical problems which are relevant in today’s (mostly academic) discussions. Shaviro has a solid background in philosophy and uses these texts, music, and videos as lenses through which we can apprehend essential questions. The first two chapters, based on Harness’s short story and Roberts’ novel, revolve around the concept of “objective reality”, reflecting on the possibility of a non-human mental representation of the world. Using Immanuel Kant and the contemporary French philosopher Quentin Meillassoux (among others) to illustrate his reflections, Shaviro embarks on an exciting presentation of the possibilities offered by an alternate take on what we, humans, call reality. Plunging into the heated debate of the New Realism and posthumanities, Shaviro manages to land on both sides of the fence, showing the necessities but also the limits of such speculations. Using the same interface, chapter three and four deal with the representation of life (Simak) and the general concept of “humanity” (Halam), challenged today by the virtual world and genetic manipulations. In chapter five (Hopkinson) and six (Beckett), Shaviro reflects on how archeology, history, and religion are relative narratives, which are attached to precise situations in time. Chapter seven (clipping) is a bit of a standalone, using music and music videos in a larger political reflection on the possibility and impossibility of freedom in a world saturated with oppression. The last chapter (Jones) closes the book with a reflection on the possible ethical costs of humanity’s survival after the destruction of planet Earth.
Extreme Fabulations is exactly that: a test of the reader’s belief in everything that constitutes their reality. Using science-fiction, Shaviro creates a thinker’s Gordian knot: if fiction can tackle the a-human, the in-human, or the post-human, why is it difficult for reason to do the same? Or, more subtly, what can the “magic” of fiction do for us which the “rationality” of science cannot? Extreme Fabulations should be therefore read as a deconstruction of scientific certainties (in a truly Derridean sense) through the opposing (and powerful) narratives of science fiction. And this is where it is a very important book: by putting “genre” literature and philosophy up against scientific certainties, this work is one of the best defenses of the humanities one can find today. It proves that thinking “outside the box that doesn’t exist” isn’t just a joke, but a necessity.
Shaviro, however, doesn’t reject science, technology, or epistemology per se—quite the contrary, actually. But he very cleverly attacks their hidden narratives—and the consequences of those narratives—through their unveiling in fiction, music, and art. There are no “truths” revealed in Extreme Fabulations, but rather many fertile uncertainties pointing at the weaknesses of an anthropocentric and ultra-positivistic view of science and technology.
The fact that all of Shaviro’s selections have pessimistic undertones is not to be overlooked. Extreme Fabulations is indeed a crash-test for conventional narratives, whether philosophical, scientific, religious, or historical. The reader will see many of their certainties provoked or shattered, but that isn’t a bad thing. Au contraire: Shaviro uses the pessimism found in these works as a form of “negative positivism” that makes it possible for thoughts to progress from the ruins, and where destruction indeed becomes creation.
Although sometimes steep reading for non-philosophers, Extreme Fabulations is a much-needed book in these times of global uncertainties and shrinking civil liberties; Shaviro shows the relevance and possibilities of “escapist fiction”. It’s a term often used dismissively of science fiction, but—ecologically, politically, epistemologically—it’s providing us with mental tools for escaping from conventional approaches to unconventional problems. Extreme Fabulations is the printed proof that, when coupled with philosophy, science fiction can become a very dangerous but necessary weapon against our normative and pre-formatted reality.
Sébastien (Seb) Doubinsky is a bilingual French writer and academic. He is the author, among others, of The Babylonian Trilogy, The Song Of Synth, Missing Signal and The Invisible. He lives in Denmark with his family and teaches literature, history and culture in the French department of Aarhus University. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
This review was commissioned by editor Casella Brookins in April 2021; the author and editor had no previous relationship. A review copy was arranged by ARB from MIT Press/Goldsmiths Press.