AUTHOR’S NOTE: Before I get to my review, I want to say a few words about Harlan Ellison, who died two weeks ago on June 28, 2018. Ellison was a volatile, complicated man. Some of his actions were praiseworthy: he marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at Selma and fought for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. Some other actions, such as his sexual assault of Connie Willis at the 2006 Hugo Awards, mar his legacy. As the world grapples with Ellison’s life and death, it is important that we do not ignore or excuse these actions, and that is why I acknowledge them here. However, I will not be commenting on them further. This blog is about writing, and that is what I want to focus on. Thank you for your attention.
Earlier this year I reviewed Harlan Ellison’s novella “A Boy & His Dog.” Following the adventures of a boy named Vic and his dog Blood as they wander a post-apocalyptic wasteland, its bracing wit and grim vision of nuclear fallout remain compelling fifty years after its publication. As he continued to write new stories featuring his heroes, Ellison realized that nothing less than a full novel would be enough to do them justice. The finished book was to be called Blood’s A Rover, after a poem by A. E. Housman. Ellison teased its publication for decades, claiming the story was finished as far back as 1989: “The final, longest section is in screenplay form…and one of these days before I go through that final door, I’ll translate it into elegant prose, and the full novel will appear.”
Ultimately, the full novel did not appear – and never will. Ellison resumed the project in 2014 at the behest of his editor, Jason Davis, but a stroke forced him to retire from writing soon after. With his death on June 28, 2018, any hope that he might recover was lost. However, he was not content to go into that good night without leaving his patient readers a parting gift. With Davis, Ellison compiled and revised all previously published material featuring Vic and Blood, as well as the aforementioned screenplay (previously unpublished). Released by Subterranean Press, this fix-up version of Blood’s A Rover is as close as we’re ever going to get to Ellison’s completed vision.
And it is wonderful.
The surprise here is not how strong each story is on its own – Ellison published over 1,700 short stories and was a master of the form – but in how well it holds together. It really shouldn’t, when you think about it. The stories in this book were written over decades and regularly switch points of view. As you might expect from such a history, the resulting narrative structure is more episodic than serial. In between each story is a quote from “The Wit & Wisdom of Blood,” humorous epigrams that Ellison wrote for the Corben graphic novel adaptation. Then, after a hundred pages of first-person prose, we switch to a third-person teleplay. The book looks and reads like a fix-up.
Somehow, despite this shaggy dog quality, it all fits. The stories have been revised for continuity, of course, but there is also a consistency of tone, a wry gallows humor, that carries from story to story. More importantly, there is a consistency of theme. No matter who is narrating or what is transpiring, these stories are about the need for kindness, and for hope, when circumstances seem bleak and inescapable. It is a message that seems timely in the chaotic world climate of 2018. (Also timely: in this updated version, Donald Trump is our final president before nuclear holocaust. I find this frighteningly plausible.)
The book begins with a poignant dedication to Michael Moorcock, who first accepted “A Boy & His Dog” for publication back in 1969. Ellison also throws in “a hug for L. Q. Jones, for the movie.” We then get a thorough introduction by Jason Davis, the single best summation of the history and legacy of the Vic and Blood stories that I have read.
The novel proper kicks off with “Eggsucker.” Narrated by Blood and set a year before the rest of the book, the story recalls a barter for ammo gone awry. It doesn’t have the satirical bite of “A Boy & His Dog,” but it is very entertaining and provides us with much information about the history and politics of its setting. Ellison’s writing is vivid and memorable throughout; his description of a mutant that Vic and Blood encounter during their travels is the stuff of nightmares:
“And there, right on schedule, coming up like something from an old Japanese horror flick…there was the king awful ugliest screamer I’ve ever seen, oozing green slime and his parts falling off like some medieval drawing of a rotting flagellant or a leper, nothing but bitten fingernails all the way back to the knuckles, and eyelashes as long as spider legs, and big whirling eyes without eyelids, his mouth open and yelling with the pain of his burns, groping and clutching trying to climb out of the pit.”
“Eggsucker” is followed by “A Boy & His Dog.” Narrated by Vic, it’s the centerpiece of the book and still the best Vic and Blood story. I will not write about its content, as I have done so before at length. I’ll just say that it was as strange, funny, sad, and scary as I remembered, and was interesting to reread within the context of a larger narrative.
We’re back to Blood’s point of view for the next story, “Run, Spot, Run,” first published in Mediascene Prevue in 1980 and reprinted in Amazing Stories in 1981. The tale finds Vic sinking into a vortex of guilt and depression following the fateful events that conclude “A Boy & His Dog.” It’s an important story for the character’s development, and I found it interesting that we don’t see it from his perspective. Until the release of this book, “Run, Spot, Run,” was the final published Vic and Blood story, and the cliffhanger on which it ends must have maddened many a fan for decades.
As Ellen Weil notes in her 2002 book Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever, “The tantalizing suggestion [of the ending to ‘Run, Spot, Run’], of course, is that the central figure and principal narrator in the novel Blood’s A Rover was to have been Blood, with Vic a more transient figure.” Weil was right. While Vic never disappears from the action completely, it is clear that Blood was indeed meant as the primary character in the book, and what a character he is. Sly, sarcastic, smart, and cultured, he is a beacon of rationality in a profoundly irrational world. He’s a compelling creation, and keeps you reading.
The final section of the book is the fabled teleplay, titled “Blood’s A Rover.” It must be said that the transition is awkward after so many pages of prose, especially if you have never read a script before. Thankfully, Ellison’s dialogue remains sharp and his detailed stage directions paint a clear picture of what is happening. As this was written for television, it is more optimistic and less violent than the prose stories, but considering that the overall theme of the novel is the wresting of humanity from barbarism and hope from despair, this seems fitting. It also introduces a late-game female main character who is tougher and smarter than Vic by a mile (and maybe even Blood, by a hair). Named Spike, she is a fascinating character. I would have enjoyed reading a story from her point of view.
All in all, it’s hard not to feel a bit sad that we’re never going to get the fully realized novel of Blood’s A Rover that Ellison promised us for decades, but what we have been given here holds together extremely well and it’s certainly better than nothing. I wish the book had a table of contents, but that is the definition of a minor quibble. Wildly entertaining and thematically compelling, Blood’s A Rover is a fine sendoff for one of the great writers of our time and one of my new favorite works of science-fiction.
NEXT TIME: “The Call of Cthulhu” by H. P. Lovecraft!