C Robert Cargill cel­e­brates a dis­turb­ing dystopian mas­ter­piece

SFX - - Contents - By Har­lan El­li­son, 1969

C Robert Cargill throws a stick at Har­lan El­li­son’s novel A Boy And His Dog.

It is the year 2034, four decades af­ter a third world war left the planet a bombed-out, charred husk of a dystopian night­mare, lit­tered with rov­ing gangs, dis­parate com­mu­ni­ties, and mu­tant an­i­mals. For 15-year-old Vic, nav­i­gat­ing the nu­clear wastes puts him in a steady pur­suit of the three things ev­ery teenage boy thinks about: food, sleep and girls. Trou­ble is, in the postapoc­a­lyp­tic wastes of the 21st cen­tury, the only thing harder to find than a meal and a place to crash for the night is girls. Good thing for Vic his trusty com­pan­ion, Blood, is a tele­pathic wun­derkind with the nose in­her­ited from a world-class nar­cotics dog of an an­ces­tor. And the one thing Blood can sniff out bet­ter than any­thing else is girls.

Har­lan El­li­son’s mas­ter­piece of postapoc­a­lyp­tic fic­tion A Boy And His Dog is a star­tling look at an al­ter­nate fu­ture born of the fear and out­rage of the mid-’60s. Set in an al­ter­nate time­line in which Pres­i­dent John F Kennedy sur­vives his at­tempted as­sas­si­na­tion, the world veers in a very dif­fer­ent, bit­ter di­rec­tion. An­i­mal ex­per­i­men­ta­tion and weapons of war lead to a night­mar­ish Cold War re­plete with na­palm-spout­ing dogs and enough nu­clear weapons to lay the world flat. It is a darkly comic tale in which movie the­atres are sanc­tu­ar­ies, con­ser­va­tive utopias are hid­den deep un­der­ground and women are a com­mod­ity, show­cas­ing the very worst of our hu­man in­stincts.

And, ul­ti­mately, iron­i­cally, it showcases one of our very best.

If you had to de­scribe El­li­son’s fic­tion in one word, it would be “dan­ger­ous”, and A Boy And His Dog is the epit­ome of that rep­u­ta­tion. It is not an easy story, es­pe­cially in this day and age. Set in a misog­y­nis­tic so­ci­ety where rape is such an ev­ery­day oc­cur­rence that it is con­sid­ered ac­cept­able court­ing by our pro­tag­o­nist, El­li­son’s in­sid­i­ous satire serves as both a fear of the fu­ture and a dig at the pa­tri­ar­chal cul­tural land­scape of the ’60s. More to the point, he uses this through­line to sub­tly high­light the truth of the story: Vic is not the mas­ter in the epony­mous re­la­tion­ship; he is the pet.

You see, ev­ery­thing Vic knows he learned from Blood. Read­ing, writ­ing, math. Vic hunts out the food, pro­tects them both, and nav­i­gates the wilds of the dystopian so­ci­eties; in re­turn Blood pro­vides Vic with the sub­jects of his basest an­i­mal in­stincts. By sim­ply in­vert­ing the species of the char­ac­ters, A Boy And His Dog be­comes the tale of an undis­ci­plined dog who runs off from his mas­ter chas­ing af­ter a dog in heat, only to dis­cover that he should have been back with his mas­ter all along. It is a bit­ter­sweet tale of a stupid young kid who comes to learn that man’s best friend, re­ally, truly, is just that.

While this and Richard Mathe­son’s I Am Le­gend are far from the ear­li­est ex­am­ples of post-apoc­a­lyp­tic fic­tion, they are, to­gether, the most de­fin­i­tive, cre­at­ing the visual lan­guage that would be­come the in­spi­ra­tion for such sub­se­quent post-apoc­a­lyp­tic works as The Road War­rior, Bat­tletruck and Book Of Eli – films that would, them­selves, com­bine with th­ese books to form the brain-stew that would serve as the prin­ci­ple in­spi­ra­tion for my novel Sea Of Rust. But El­li­son’s book it­self ul­ti­mately set the weird tone found through­out the sub­genre, in­spir­ing the de­light­fully strange gang cul­ture of John Car­pen­ter’s film Es­cape From New York, and the rock’n’roll madness of Mad Max: Fury Road. It doesn’t sim­ply present us with a fright­ful, har­row­ing fu­ture, but is a damn­ing so­cial com­men­tary that let its freak flag fly, prov­ing to be as weird and manic as it is deadly.

Sea Of Rust by C Robert Cargill is out now.

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