One of the phrases that frustrates me most is “it is what it is”. As a speculative fiction scholar and fan, when I hear these words, I hear the closing down of opportunities and the reifying of the status quo. “It is what it is” tells me that people are frustrated with the existing state of things, but are unwilling or feel unable to make changes. SF is the literature of change, a literature of new potentials and possibilities. That is not to say that it reguarly challenges the way things are because most SF doesn’t imagine new possibilities but only further entrenches existing ideas and the current structures of power, BUT it has the POTENTIAL to imagine changes, to think of new ways of understanding the world and new possibilities that challenge the world as it is.
Today I listened to a talk by Alyx Dellamonica about environmentalism and SF in which she reminded listeners that one of the most dangerous things we can do is say “there’s nothing we can do”. She pointed out that people will often close down possibilities for imagining new ways of being in the world because we convince ourselves that substantive change is impossible and then we close down our own faculties for thinking of new ideas and new solutions to existing structures.
I think this illustrates some of the issues I have long had about phrases like “it is what it is”. These phrases serve to support the way things currently are, serve to further entrench them. We tell ourselves that it is impossible to imagine new ideas and to think of fresh ways of understanding the world and so we support the status quo, we don’t challenge the existing authority structures that are unwelcome, unhealthy, and unsafe for so many people.
I have the same reaction to “what can you do?”, which, despite starting with “what”, a question, has never been about asking a question, but rather providing a nihilistic rhetoric, a closing down of questioning and imagining new possibilities. I would ask us to take that question seriously, to reimagine it as an actual question. When asked “what can you do?” that we operate in the realm of the imaginative, the realm of potentials and we work on thinking about new ways of existing with and within our world. SF has this potential, but that doesn’t mean that this is exclusively the perview of SF authors. As a public, we too can SPECULATE. We can interrogate existing systems and ask what they exist for, whether new and better ideas can rise out of them, how we can substantively change, what posibilities exist, and what we can imagine our way out of and, perahps more importantly, what we can imagine ourselves into.
I am not saying that we should all walk around with utopic visions in our minds, particularly since, for many of us from disempowered groups, we so often have our utopic visions shattered, but that we keep pushing at the fringes of our society to advocate for positive changes. There is still a place for the apocalyptic in our imagination since it often allows us to articulate the way we see our worlds shaped for something other than us, a world that is fundamentally hostile to us (particularly if we are from disenfranchised groups), but it is important to remember that every apocalypse is about change, about a world in flux, and THAT has imaginative potential. Apocalypses are about recognizing that the world is no longer able to support an existing way of being and they call on us to imagine a new possibility, a new method of understanding a changing and changeable world.
SF can be a way of critiquing the world as well as a way of imagining a new world, new possibilities, and a change to look at our own world from askance to see the things that we ignore, push aside, choose not to contemplate so that we can exist in a world of “it is what it is”. How do we use SF to imagine a world that ISN’T “what it is”?