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8 Brutally Honest Harlan Ellison Quotes

These punchy words of wisdom by the award-winning science fiction writer are as insightful as they are witty.

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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Harlan Ellison was an American author with a genius streak and a habit of telling people things they didn’t want to hear. Best known for his science fiction short stories, he had an inventive mind and refused to limit himself: he also dabbled in the genres of horror, mystery, crime, and literary criticism, in such varied forms as books, novellas, screenplays, and essays. Some of his most well-loved works include A Boy and His Dog, the Star Trek episode "The City on the Edge of Forever," and the short story “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.” The writer was famed for the feisty attitude he maintained until his death on June 27th, 2018. Read on for eight Harlan Ellison quotes that will amuse and inspire you with their unapologetic honesty.  

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“The two most common elements in the universe are Hydrogen and stupidity.” 

Harlan Ellison was almost as well-known for his combative, controversial personality as he was for his award-winning writing. He even took issue with how this quote was often misremembered as the two most common things instead of elements, calling the appropriated phrase “dull and imbecile.”

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This quote made its way into print when Ellison was asked to write the introduction of Blast Off: Rockets, Rayguns, Robots and Rarities, a book about vintage space toys and comics. The pithy saying exemplifies Ellison’s well-earned title as “Sci Fi’s Most Controversial Figure.” But don’t let him catch you calling him a science fiction author. He once insisted during a television appearance that he actually wrote speculative fiction. Then again, the appearance was on the Sci-Fi Channel.

“I don't know how you perceive my mission as a writer, but for me it is not a responsibility to reaffirm your concretized myths and provincial prejudices [...] I stir the soup. I inconvenience you. I make your nose run and your eyeballs water.”

Ellison didn’t just accept his controversial reputation, he relished it. In fact, he considered it his essential duty as a writer to stir the pot, rationalizing that if his readers were comfortable, then he hadn’t pushed their boundaries far enough. 

This quote is taken from the introduction of Shatterday, a collection of short stories with a fresh take on such universally disturbing and thought-provoking topics as alien invasions and immortality. The story from which the title takes its name is a chilling tale about a doppelganger, which was later nominated for a Nebula Award and adapted into an episode of The Twilight Zone

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“There are certain injustices in this life you’ve got to do something about. You can’t just say that you can’t fight it, or it’s too much trouble, or that you don’t have the time or the effort, or that you can’t win. Forget all that. Fight them all!”

Ellison was a fighter, and didn’t believe in sitting back while injustice ran its course. As a young man, he was a part of the civil rights movement, participating in the Selma to Montgomery March organized by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He was also an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War, at one point capitalizing on his invitation as Guest of Honor to former military school Texas A&M University to openly criticize the students’ participation in the war.

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Ellison is known for his insightful writing on civil disobedience. The recurring theme features heavily in “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman.” This award-winning short story is about a man living in a regimented dystopian future, where failure to be punctual can have fatal consequences. The trickster resists the bureaucracy by fighting back with light-hearted pranks meant to disrupt the master schedule of people’s comings and goings. When Ellison uttered this quote during a question and answer session with students at UCLA, it went down in history as a reminder that if you let your guard down and stop fighting back against injustice, it could come back to haunt you. 

“If you put your hand in my pocket, you'll drag back six inches of bloody stump."

Ellison reportedly uttered this quote after pursuing legal action against more than 240 people and the Internet service provider AOL for publishing his writing online without permission. Known as a fierce defender of his intellectual property, Ellison brought several notable cases to court. For example, he successfully sued James Cameron over The Terminator, claiming that the director stole the movie idea from an episode Ellison wrote for the television series The Outer Limits. He also sued CBS Paramount Television, alleging that the studio owed him money for the Star Trek episode he wrote, “The City on the Edge of Forever,” which is widely considered the best episode of the show.

This quote memorializes Ellison’s ferocious attitude and unwillingness to back down, especially over issues of privacy and fair monetary compensation for his writing.

“I think love and sex are separate and only vaguely similar. Like the word bear and the word bare. You can get in trouble mistaking one for the other.” 

Ellison didn’t hold back when it came to discussing his views on sex and romance. He was actually fired from Disney on his first day of work for making a sex joke about the beloved cartoon characters Mickey and Minnie Mouse. The writer was definitely skeptical of the lasting power of romance, having been married and divorced four times. However, it seems that his cynicism softened over time. His fifth marriage to Susan Toth lasted 32 years, until his death in 2018. 

RELATED: Author Harlan Ellison Passes Away at 84 

While this quote is from Shatterday, Ellison’s book Love Ain’t Nothing But Sex Misspelled is a further delve into his thoughts on the subject. It’s a collection of 16 short stories centered around the theme of challenging the traditional notion of romantic love. 

"I know that pain is the most important thing in the universes. Greater than survival, greater than love, greater even than the beauty it brings about. For without pain, there can be no pleasure."

Is there any lesson harder than accepting that pain is necessary for growth? Ellison captures that exact feeling here in this powerful quote from “Paingod,” which lent its title to the collection of short stories it appears in. 

The writer often wrote about the growing pains that one experiences in the transition from childhood to adulthood, from remarking that “no one gets out of childhood alive” to ruminating on the realization that the modern-day celebration of Christmas is mostly made up of marketing ploys and consumerism. While this quote may be difficult to digest, it serves as a reminder to look for the silver lining and find meaning in pain. 

“Writing is the hardest work in the world. I have been a bricklayer and a truck driver, and I tell you–as if you haven't been told a million times already–that writing is harder. Lonelier. And nobler and more enriching. ” 

Bricklayer and truck driver only scrape the surface of the myriad of odd jobs Ellison pursued. He also had brief stints as a tuna fisherman, crop-picker, nitroglycerine truck driver, short-order cook, cab driver, and door-to-door salesman. After all that, he considered writing, which he called “a holy chore,” to be the most fulfilling yet difficult job he had ever had. His thoughts are memorialized in this quote, which made its way into the book Quit Your Day Job! by Jim Denney.

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Despite its difficulty, Ellison managed to become a prolific writer. He produced more than 1,700 short stories and articles and over 100 books in addition to numerous screenplays and scripts for television. His numerous accolades include eight and a half Hugo Awards—the “half” shared with the screenwriter who adapted A Boy and his Dog into a movie—four Nebula Awards, the Silver Pen for Journalism by International PEN, and Science Fiction Hall of Fame inductee. 

“A man may truly live in his dreams, his noblest dreams, but only, only if he is worthy of those dreams.” 

This quote originates from “Delusion for a Dragon Slayer,” in which a daydreaming man is catapulted into his wildest fantasy, only to find out that he’s not exactly the storybook hero he always imagined himself to be. The short story can be found in the collection I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.

This quote serves as a powerful reminder to live up to your dreams. The takeaway here is don’t just imagine yourself as a better person, be a better person. Ellison believed that your dreams and fantasies should inform your path in real life.

Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons

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[via The New York Times; Autograph Collector; Syfy.com]