National Short Story Month – Harlan Ellison’s “A Boy and His Dog”

We’ve probably had short stories in oral form since humans began to speak and told fanciful tales, but the “official” origins of the modern written short story are in the 19th Century when magazines could be printed rather cheaply. The short story in these publications became very popular and fueled the magazine industry from then until now. The magazines printing those early short stories weren’t technically literary magazines because they contained other, non-literary material. The 20th Century saw the rise of the literary magazine as we know it today, chock full of short stories, essays, poetry, and author interviews. But this isn’t National Essay Month (though I’m sure there is one), so throughout this month, I’ll blog about the short stories of particular interest to me.

There’ll be no specific order to the stories I’ll write about–no Top 10 lists–just ones that mean something to me. So, for me, the only logical starting place is Harlan Ellison’s “A Boy and His Dog.” This story is from Ellison’s story collection, The Beast Who Shouted Love at the Heart of the Worldpublished in 1969.

Ellison is primarily a short story writer, mostly in the Science Fiction and speculative arena, where he’s won just about every award in that field and a few literary awards as well. In the 1970’s and 1980’s he would regularly go to a book store in Los Angeles, pick a first line from a collection submitted by patrons of the store, sit down, and begin to type. Each page, typos and all and with no editing, would be taped to the front window of the store. People would stop and read or go inside and watch the process. Ellison is known for being an egoist and an all around difficult person, volatile and vocal about fools he doesn’t suffer lightly, but I met him at the World Science Fiction Convention in the early 1970’s, and he was perfectly cordial to me. After spotting me, gawking as he “debated” with his good friend Isaac Asimov, he took me aside and spent a good half hour alone with me, talking about writing and encouraging me to “keep at it.” It’s something I’ll never forget.

I could pick any of his hundreds of short stories, but “A Boy and His Dog” was the one that gave me the biggest “kick in the gut” when I read it. It takes place in a post-nuclear war world where men and their dogs roam a desolate landscape scavenging for shelter, food, and women. Vic, the Boy in the title, travels with Blood, a dog who is telepathic, the result of a pre-war experiment. Blood’s talent is “sniffing” out females for Vic to rape. Vic is able to “score” more women because of Blood’s talent and their ability to communicate silently.

A pretty dark and horrific premise, but as with most of Ellison’s stories, there is a comeuppance. Blood leads Vic to Quilla June, whom Vic rescues from mutants called Screamers. When she shows Vic she’s willing to have sex with him, Vic is confused, and Quilla June tells him of a paradise where he can have all the willing women he wants. Quilla June has been send to the surface by her father to seduce men and bring them to the “downunder” for breeding purposes. Vic is eager to go with her, but a suspicious Blood tries to dissuade him from following Quilla June. However, Vic is, well, thinking with his lower head. Vic descends into Quilla June’s underground Utopia and leaves Blood alone topside.

Quilla June’s world is quirky and rather like the Amish on acid. Everyone wears mime makeup, dresses like a 1950’s farm town, and people who don’t conform get sent to the “farm,” a euphemism for execution. One of the reasons downunder women go topside to bring men back is that so many get sent to the farm for the merest of reasons. When Vic arrives, Quilla June and 34 other women are set to “marry” Vic, but to Vic’s surprise there is no sex. He’s, um, tied down and attached to a machine that extracts his sperm, and his “wives” will be artificially inseminated. The town’s odd moral code, however, doesn’t allow unwed mothers, so the women have to marry before being inseminated. Quilla June knows that once Vic’s sperm has produced 35 pregnancies, he’ll be sent to the farm. Because she hasn’t enjoyed her deception–and she’s basically rebelling against the tyrannical rule of her father–and because she now loves Vic, she breaks him out, and they head back to the surface.

Ever loyal, Blood has not strayed from the point where Vic went underground. When Vic and Quilla June find him, Blood is badly injured and starving, near death. Quilla June gently encourages Vic to leave Blood, but Vic realizes he has only survived in his post-apocalyptic world because of Blood’s wisdom. He’s faced with a choice–the love Quilla June has for him alone or the loyalty of his faithful dog, who first and foremost needs food.

At the end of the story Blood is feeling much, much better and is no longer hungry, and he and Vic resume their travels.

A grim ending and not for the light-hearted, but it is gripping. Ellison moves easily from the violent, gruff, raucous, rapacious world of the surface to the artificial, gentile, cultured, and deadly world of the downunder. The changes in language and writing style reflect each world. The reader is left to wonder which is the worse of the two worlds, and the decision isn’t easy. What looks inviting about the downunder is in some ways more of a nightmare than the devastated civilization above. We don’t even cringe at Vic’s choice, because he’s a child of that nuclear holocaust, which occurred when he was small. Survival is all he’s ever known, and he did whatever he needed to until he met the restraining guidance of Blood. It is Blood who is the hero in a story that shouldn’t have any.

If you read “A Boy and His Dog,” you’ll not only look twice at the wolf inside your house; you’ll also want to read more Ellison. He’s a curmudgeon, but he writes like a son of a bitch.

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