Harlan Ellison’s, ‘A Boy and His Dog’ (1969) is written like a modern-day ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ that’s set in a dystopian alternative reality future — but Vic’s post-apocalyptic world is aimed at an adult audience.
Vic is a young adult who roams about a post-apocalyptic desert landscape after World War 4, a devastating nuclear conflict. Vic is a feral teenager. The roles are swapped in this story with his dog, Blood, being the older, wiser, one of the two and Vic taking on the role of the instinctive creature led by sexual gratification and hunger.
Blood is the product of genetic experimentation, the fusion of dolphin and canine genes, which has produced a telepathic dog. Vic and Blood are able to converse telepathically.
In this vision of the future, Vic is amoral, scavenging and pillaging for survival, routinely killing anyone who gets in his way, and raping any girls that Blood can find for him. Vic considers his treatment of girls better than other ‘Solos’ because he’s not sadistic.
Beneath the apocalyptic landscape, the middle-class live in underground towns leading an ersatz small town existence. Vic despises the ‘down under’ people and their polite society. He is literally a ‘wild man’ (who lives without any concept of civilised society).
The delinquent teenager was a popular subject in mid twentieth century fiction, including mainstream TV dramas like Star Trek. These stories featured wild teenagers who lacked the respect and work ethic of their parent’s generation and who were unable to function within society. In the future world of ‘Logan’s Run’ (1967), for example, gangs of feral kids lurk around the dilapidated edge of the city.
‘A Boy and His Dog’ is a simple story. There’s no sense of an underpinning philosophy, it’s just a simple what if… scenario. What if, after an apocalyptic war all concept of a society and civilisation has broken down.
Harlan Ellison was a prolific writer (he worked in a number of different genres and wrote screenplays for TV). A sequel to the novella was published and a further sequel, ‘A Girl and A Dog’ was planned but it was never completed.
The 1976 independent film of the book follows the novella and it has the same twist at the end (although Harlan Ellison hated the closing line of dialogue in the film).
Vic meets Quilla June Holmes but his feral nature and lack of morality precludes him from being able to form a relationship with anyone (apart from Blood, who he depends on to find food).
The ending of ‘A Boy and His Dog’ is impossible to discuss without giving away what happens, which I don’t want to do.
I used to find Vic’s behaviour troubling, but now I see him as a fictional construct, there to illustrate the ideas behind the story. Quilla June Holmes is easier to empathise with and in some ways she’s the entry point from our world into this dystopian landscape. Here she is, quite early on, asking Vic about love, and his reply is clear:
‘Have you ever been in love?’
‘In love? Have you ever been in love with a girl?’
‘Well, I damn well guess I haven’t!’
‘Do you know what love is?’
‘Sure. I guess I do.’
‘But if you’ve never been in love…?’
‘Don’t be dumb. I mean, I’ve never had a bullet in the head, and I know I wouldn’t like it.’
As a reader, I felt detached from the characters. Vic’s behaviour is disturbing and Quilla June Holmes is too passive to really identify with. The novella occupies a strange space between young adult tropes (the animal companion story, the young adult against the world)... and its shocking adult content. In spite of this, the language, at least from a technical standpoint, makes for a remarkably smooth reading experience.