C Robert Cargill celebrates a disturbing dystopian masterpiece
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.