In April of 1969, a story by Harlan Ellison appeared in the magazine New Worlds. Ellison was already a well-known name, having won three Hugo Awards in as many years. The story was included in Ellison’s short story collection The Beast That Shouted Love At The Heart Of The World later that year. The tale was called “A Boy & His Dog” – a modest title for a story that has had a profound influence on science-fiction since.
The story takes place in the year 2024 following a nuclear war and concerns – as you would expect – a boy and his dog. Vic, the boy, is fifteen years old and, befitting his age, obsessed with sex. Having grown up parentless in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, Vic has no real grasp of morality or ethics and rapes whatever women he can find. He is aided in his search for sex by his dog, Blood. Blood is telepathic, the result of government experiments before the war. Because of this governmental tampering, Blood has lost the ability to scavenge for food himself. In return for finding food, Blood helps Vic find women.
Women are scarce in this world, you see. While the men went out to fight the war, the women stayed at home in major population centers, which were subsequently bombed. It’s an interesting plot point, but not one that I feel is terribly well-explained. It seems odd to me that almost all women were wiped from the face of the earth while the men who were actually fighting the war survived in great numbers. I understand that short stories are, well, short, but I would have liked to learn more about this. Ellison, to his credit, does explore the implications of this somewhat – vintage pornography is a valued commodity in this world and it is not uncommon for men to engage in gay sex.
The story begins with Vic and Blood going to the movies to watch the aforementioned vintage porn. While in the theatre, Blood smells a woman and helps Vic track her to an abandoned YMCA. Vic prepares to rape her, but stops short. Something happens to him that has never happened before. He finds himself interested in her. He notices her hair, the color of her eyes. She talks to him and looks him in the face. He wants to talk back. Then they are attacked by a gang whose members want the girl for themselves. Vic and Blood protect her, and by the time the smoke clears Vic’s in love.
This first section of the story is standard pulp sci-fi. Ellison was hardly the first to write post-apocalyptic fiction; such stories were commonplace during the Cold War. Ellison, for the most part, doesn’t deviate from the norm here – his wasteland is populated by roving gangs and glowing (though unseen) mutants. Vic narrates and his tone is grim, no-nonsense; this approach allows the story to absorb the reader in a way a campier tale would not.
What humor there is comes from Blood, whose sarcastic voice is very similar to Ellison’s himself. Despite being a dog, Blood is the brains of the duo. Unlike Vic, he is well-educated and frequently enlightens his companion in matters of history, grammar, and survival strategies. He also teases Vic by calling him “Albert,” a sly reference to Albert Payson Terhune, the author of “dog novels” such as Lad: A Dog and The Heart of a Dog. Blood tends to serve as Vic’s moral compass, reminding the boy of their obligations to one another when Vic is distracted by women or other temptations.
The girl is named Quilla June. She comes from “downunder,” a society that lives in a massive underground facility. Before the war, scientists built a couple hundred of these shelters, and the middle class and good Christian folk of America (“squares of the worst kind,” in Vic’s words) settled in to recreate the comfortable lives they knew up top. Blood knows that the people who live downunder distrust surface dwellers and warns Vic against involving himself with Quilla June, but Vic doesn’t listen. Quilla June knocks Vic out with a pistol and runs away. Furious, Vic pursues her to the downunder town of Topeka. Blood refuses to follow and stays on the surface, even though he will not be able to find food on his own.
The section of “A Boy & His Dog” set in Topeka is what gives the story its metaphorical bite. Before now, the story has been vivid and exciting pulp fiction. Here, Ellison aims higher, unleashing a scathing commentary on middle-class American values. Vic’s description of the town reads like a Norman Rockwell painting:
“They rocked in rockers on the front porches, they raked their lawns, they hung around the gas station, they stuck pennies in gumball machines, they painted white stripes down the middle of the road, they sold newspapers on the corners, they listened to oompah bands on a shell in the park…they walked hand-in-hand with some of the ugliest chicks I’ve ever seen, and they bored the ass off me.”
It is a picture-perfect recreation of small-town Americana, but from the beginning Vic realizes how bland and empty it is to live there. “They ate artificial shit: artificial peas and fake meat and make-believe chicken and ersatz corn and bogus bread and it all tasted like chalk and dust to me.”
In her book Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever, Ellen Weil neatly summarizes how clinging to the past has ruined Topeka’s future: “The Topekans have chosen to deal with historical change by denying it, substituting instead a repressive condition of stasis, enforced even down to the level of daily speech, in which everyone must politely address everyone else as ‘Mr.’ or ‘Mrs.'” (As Weil notes, a society that exists in a tightly regulated stasis is not a new idea for Ellison; it is the basis of one of his most famous stories, “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said The Ticktockman.”) The point Ellison is making here is clear. The society up top and the society down under are both inhumane, but for different reasons – a point Ellison drive homes as this section unfolds.
We learn why Quilla June has lured Vic to Topeka: The population is growing sterile and most of the babies are girls. Topeka needs virile men to keep the population from dying out. At first, Vic is delighted to serve as the town stud, but within a week he finds the fake sunlight and forced politeness of the town’s citizens repressive and yearns to escape. This is another section of the story that made me wish that the story had more focus on female characters. Ellison seems to be setting up a contrast between the predominantly male surface and the predominately female Topeka, but ultimately he never does anything with this. I suppose I can cut Ellison some slack; a literal “war of the sexes” might have been a bit much.
Vic enlists Quilla June in his escape plan and they make their way back to the surface. Ellison has a few more jabs to make at small-town hypocrisy on the way out; Quilla June’s “prayer-shouting Poppa” is revealed to desire her sexually, and Vic uses this desire to incapacitate him during the escape. By the time they reach topside, Blood is starving. Quilla June begs Vic to leave Blood behind and go with her, asking, “Do you know what love is?” Faced between saving his dog, whom he depends on for survival (and who depends on him), and the girl he loves, Vic makes a choice: “Sure I know. A boy loves his dog.”
The implication is obvious: Vic kills Quilla June and feeds her to Blood. Some readers of the story have interpreted the scene to be cannibalistic – in The Edge of Forever, Weil even draws parallels between “A Boy & His Dog” and the cannibalism in H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine. However, Harlan Ellison has explicitly stated on more than one occasion that Vic does not engage in cannibalism.
Considering how often I’ve brought up the dynamic between the sexes in the story, I think now is a good time to address the accusations of misogyny that have followed the story around for decades. The novella was turned into a movie of the same name in 1975. Harlan Ellison did not write the screenplay; this was done by producer Alvy Moore and director L. Q. Jones. Noted feminist theorist and sci-fi novelist Joanna Russ (The Adventures of Alyx) wrote in her essay “A Boy & His Dog: The Final Solution,” “Sending a woman to see A Boy & His Dog is like sending a Jew to a movie that glorifies Dachau; you need not be feminist to loathe this film.” Ellison himself denounced the film’s ending, which makes light of Quilla June’s death, calling it a “moronic, hateful chauvinist last line, which I despise.” Because the film is a generally faithful adaptation of the plot of the story, the two are often conflated.
However, it is important to separate the film and the story when discussing potential misogyny. The society Vic lives in, and certainly Vic himself, are ragingly misogynistic, but I do not believe the tale itself is as well. Ellison, in his introduction to Vic & Blood, a graphic novel adaptation of the story illustrated by Richard Corben, defends himself thusly: “[People] seem blissfully unaware of history (well, duh) and what happens after a decimating war in which food, weapons, shelter and women become valuable chattel… I show my real attitude towards these matters by making Vic little more than a beast, while Blood represents culture, wit, intellect, saavy, and civilization at its best.”
Joanna Russ goes into the matter in depth in “The Final Solution”:
“The story is, to my mind, somewhat different from the film; no one in the story is totally sympathetic or totally evil, and in particular the events surrounding the two main characters’ escape from the story’s underground society – he’s an intruder and she’s a native, but both are misfits – are such as to preclude choosing one character as morally better than another. The story’s point seems to be that both the societies, above ground and under ground, are rotten. Furthermore, the story is told from the male character’s point of view, a technique that admits both his relative ignorance of the other people in the tale and his natural bias in favor of himself.”
While I do not think Harlan Ellison has written a misogynistic story, he does have a tendency of writing female characters who betray others, or who invoke hatred in male characters – Ellen, for example, in “I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream,” or Pretty Maggie in “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes.” Quilla June fits that profile. Over the course of the story she betrays Vic and the people of Topeka, and the coldness with which she attempts to murder her own mother during the escape chills even Vic.
For the sake of brevity, I won’t list all the ways that “A Boy & His Dog” has influenced science fiction. There are, however, two major descendants of the story and its various adaptations that are well-recognized in popular culture: George Miller’s film The Road Warrior, and the video game series Fallout. In an interview with The Dissolve in 2013, Ellison claims that Miller called him from Australia to admit that he “ripped off” The Road Warrior from the film of A Boy & His Dog. Jesse Heinig, programmer on the original Fallout, stated in an article for Escapist that “A Boy & His Dog influenced Fallout on many levels, from underground communities of survivors to glowing mutants.”
Since its publication, “A Boy & His Dog” has been renowned as one of Ellison’s masterpieces. It won the Nebula Award for Best Novella in 1969 and was nominated for the Hugo. Ellison wrote two short follow-up stories in the subsequent decades, “Eggsucker” (which recounts the early days of Vic and Blood’s friendship), and “Run, Spot, Run,” in which Vic develops a conscience after Quilla June’s murder. For years, Ellison claimed that these stories were part of a larger work called Blood’s A Rover, but the completed novel never materialized. However, in January of 2018, Subterranean Press announced that it would be releasing the completed novel later that year.
As for me, I loved the story. Its vivid setting, complicated characters, social satire, and clear influence on future works of science fiction make it essential reading.
NEXT TIME: “Black Destroyer” by A. E. van Vogt!