9 Great Quotes from Sci-Fi Legend Samuel R. Delany

Join us in celebrating Samuel Delany’s 75th birthday with some of his most notable quotes.

April 1st is a milestone birthday for sci-fi legend Samuel "Chip" Delany. In honor of that most momentous occasion, below are eight quotes from Delany that epitomize the Science Fiction Grand Master's outlook on writing, sexuality, and the power of language.

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 “The problem isn't to learn to love humanity, but to learn to love those members of it who happen to be at hand.”  —Dhalgren

This quote is from Delany's groundbreaking novel Dhalgren, one of the best-selling science fiction books of all time. Dhalgren challenged readers' expectations for the genre, and for narrative itself. 

The controversial book follows a nomadic character called "the Kid" through his time in the labyrinthine, protean city of Bellona, a midwestern metropolis cut off from the rest of the country by a mysterious disaster. The book features frank depictions of queer sex, and is told in a stream-of-consciousness style that has been called everything from "the very best to come out of the science fiction field " (Theodore Sturgeon) to "the worst trash" (Philip K. Dick).  

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"Endings to be useful must be  inconclusive." — The Einstein Intersection

This quote from Delany's Nebula Award-winning novel The Einstein Intersection, published when he was just 25, encapsulates the intentional ambiguity found in some of his greatest works of fiction. 

Samuel Delany quotes
  • Samuel Delany in New York in 2016.Photo Credit: Houari B./Flickr (CC)

"How we treat our invalids—our mad, our physically or mentally compromised family members—does tell you something about who we are politically, historically, culturally."  —The Paris Review interview

In a 2011 interview with The Paris Review, Delany made this comment while reflecting on how chronic illness and disabilities are depicted in fiction, and perceived in real life. 

“Historically it's a very new, not to mention vulgar, idea that the spectator's experience should be identical to, or even have anything to do with, the artist's. That idea comes from an over-industrialized society which has learned to distrust magic.” —Dhalgren

Samuel Delany quotes Octavia Butler Avery Brooks
  • Actor Avery Brooks (L.) and Samuel R. Delany (R.) at a tribute to Delany's friend and former student Octavia Butler.Photo Credit: Houari B./Flickr (CC)

"Sometimes you want to say things, and you're missing an idea to make them with, and missing a word to make the idea with. In the beginning was the word. That's how somebody tried to explain it once. Until something is named, it doesn't exist." —Babel-17

Delany's first Nebula Award-winning book, Babel-17, explores the power of language to change our perceptions and actions. Inspired in large part by the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis—the belief that language impacts its speakers' cognition— Babel-17 is set during an intergalactic war in which one side develops a language that can be weaponized. The Babel-17 language has no equivalent for the word "I," and dramatically alters the behavior and worldview of those who speak it. 

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"Science fiction isn’t just thinking about the world out there. It’s also thinking about how that world might be—a particularly important exercise for those who are oppressed, because if they’re going to change the world we live in, they—and all of us—have to be able to think about a world that works differently." — The Paris Review interview

Samuel Delany quotes New York State Writers Hall of Fame
  • Samuel Delany was inducted June, 2016, into the New York State Writers Hall of Fame along with Maya Angelou, Stephen Sondheim, Roger Angell, Roz Chast, Jean Craighead George, Grace Paley, and Don Marquis. Pictured here with editor Betsy Mitchell. Photo Credit: Betsy Mitchell

"I was a young black man, light-skinned enough so that four out of five people who met me, of whatever race, assumed I was white ... I was a homosexual who now knew he could function heterosexually. And I was a young writer whose early attempts had already gotten him a handful of prizes ... So, I thought, you are neither black nor white. You are neither male nor female. And you are that most ambiguous of citizens, the writer." —The Motion of Light in Water

Delany's Hugo Award-winning autobiographical work The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village chronicles his young adulthood as a gay Black man married to a white woman and living in New York. The Motion of Light in Water was the second of Delany's memoirs. His other autobiographical writings include Heavenly Breakfast; Times Square Red, Times Square Blue; Selected Letters; and the graphic novel Bread and Wine: An Erotic Tale of New York

"I'm a gay man who came through the AIDs epidemic. The notion that being genteel about intimacy ... That kills people. That kills people. And I just did not want to be complicit in murder." —Strand Bookstore discussion

During a 2013 question and answer panel with artist Mia Wolff for their graphic novel Bread and Wine: An Erotic Tale of New York, Delany shared why honestly depicting sexuality is such a vital aspect of his work. The autobiographical graphic novel depicts how Delany and his partner Dennis met and became lovers. 

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"Desire isn’t appeased by its object, only irritated into something more than desire that can join with the stars to inform the chaotic heavens with sense." — Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand

Delany's 1984 novel Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand shows his belief that science fiction is as much about reflecting the social attitudes of the present as it is about predicting the future. The book is set in a far-distant future where humans have colonized space, and are desperately working to find a cure for a recurring planetary extinction event called the Cultural Fugue. As a defense against the Fugue, human societies adopt two contrasting belief systems: the Sygn, which values diversity and social progress, and the Family, which views the traditional nuclear family bond as sacred.

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Featured photo via Strand Bookstore on YouTube; All others via Houari B. / Flickr (CC)

Published on 31 Mar 2017