A Boy and His Dog Essay - Essays and Criticism

Essays and Criticism

Role Reversals

As indicated by the title, ‘‘A Boy and His Dog’’ is about the relationship between the two main charac- ters in the story, a teenager named Vic and his telepathic dog named Blood. Among the many unusual qualities of this story is the role-reversal that characterizes this human-canine relationship. Ellison inverts what the reader understands as the dynamic between a person and a dog, making the human the more impulsive character and the dog the more thoughtful one. The author’s use of inversion in the story reflects the dramatic changes that have taken place on Earth since the War demolished it physically, socially, and culturally. Ellison’s presentation of inversions also suggests that perhaps the present is not as stable as the reader might think. The relationship between Vic and Blood shows how something that is taken for granted in the present— the dynamics between people and their pets—might be inverted in the future.

Because Vic is human, the reader expects him to be levelheaded, dominant, caring, and intelligent. He should be Blood’s guide, providing for his needs and taking charge of navigating them through the human world. Instead, Vic is impulsive, instinctual, uneducated, and weakened by his base drives. Ellison relates Vic’s animal nature on the first page when Vic tells Blood to find him a woman because he needs sex. When Blood teases him, Vic is too blinded by his sexual drive to respond good-naturedly; he is mad at Blood for not immediately responding to his needs. For Vic, sex is not a mutual, loving act; it is rape, and his only concern is fulfilling his need, without regard for the woman he finds.

Vic is also violent, sometimes in reaction to being physically threatened, and sometimes in reaction to having his lifestyle threatened. He, Blood, and Quilla June are threatened by the presence of the roverpak in the YMCA, so Vic reacts by hiding and killing as many of them as he can. This is an example of the basic ‘‘fight or flight’’ instinct, and Vic never chooses flight. In his environment, there is no way to run away from a situation safely, so he has learned to respond to danger with violence. Later, when his carefree, roaming, crude lifestyle is threatened by the leaders of Topeka, he responds like a caged animal. In essence, he wants to return to his native habitat.

Blood, as a dog, could be expected to be an instinct-driven, submissive, and obedient creature who constantly seeks his master’s approval. Instead,...

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Ellison's Story is misogynistic and Adolescent

When Marlon Brando, in the 1953 film The Wild One, is asked what he’s rebelling against, he answers, ‘‘Whaddaya got?’’ It’s an iconic moment in twentieth-century art: a young man casting off societal constraints. In Harlan Ellison’s ‘‘A Boy and His Dog,’’ Vic adopts this spirit of amorphous protest. He rails against ‘‘squares’’ with ‘‘nice whitewashed fences’’; he turns manicured poodles into dog chow. What he doesn’t do is demonstrate the advantages to be found in the rebellious stance. Vic gains freedom of a sort, but he remains frozen in his own misogynistic and adolescent postures. It’s a trade-off with which Ellison appears comfortable.

Ellison’s work has long trumpeted the outsider, the dissenter, the man neither caste- nor clockconscious. By calling his 1988 short story collection Angry Candy, Ellison allied himself with another self-proclaimed rebel, the poet e. e. cummings. The allusion is to cummings’s ‘‘the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls,’’ a satiric poem in which upper-class ladies exercise their ‘‘comfortable minds’’ by bandying ‘‘scandal of Mrs. N and Professor D.’’ The ladies’ social consciences are eased by knitting sweaters. The moon, meanwhile, offers protest, rattling in the sky ‘‘like a fragment of angry candy.’’ Ellison’s characters confront orthodox thought just as angrily as cummings’s moon does. In ‘‘‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman,’’ Ellison’s hero is accused of being a non-conformist. ‘‘That didn’t used to be a felony,’’ he replies. ‘‘It is now,’’ the totalitarian figure shoots back. ‘‘Live in the world around you.’’ But Ellison’s characters are rarely able to live in the worlds around them.

‘‘A Boy and His Dog’’ illustrates the problem neatly. Vic devotes much of his time ‘‘aboveground’’ searching for sex—a search that, more times than not, is unsuccessful. Lured ‘‘downunder,’’ he learns that the townspeople of Topeka plan to employ him as a stud service. For someone whose taste in movies runs to ‘‘Big Black Leather Splits,’’ this development is, as Vic says, ‘‘too good to be true.’’ But rather than continue to revel in his good fortune, he finds that within a week he’s ‘‘ready to scream.’’

For Ellison’s Topeka is full of cummings’s Cambridge ladies—conservatives too self-content to notice a wider world around them. Vic sees them as ‘‘squares of the worst kind,’’ ‘‘lawanorder goofs,’’ Better Business Bureau bumblers who rake lawns, collect milk bottles, and listen to oompah bands in the park. Existence for the Topekans is a collective experience; Vic is, by definition, a solo. He’s also, by Ellison’s reckoning, a natural man, a figure who acts on instinct and who feels kinship with the mountains and forests and moon. He balks at the Topekans’ ‘‘artificial peas and fake meat and makebelieve chicken and ersatz corn’’; he denounces the ‘‘lying, hypocritical crap they called civility.’’ Vic imagines himself on the side of the truth-teller, the outlaw, the man who can’t be bullied or bought. Trapped in the tin can of Topeka, among people with comfortable minds, he sets forth to free himself, brass balls and rattle in hand.

In the introduction to his story ‘‘The Crackpots,’’ Ellison writes disparagingly of the ‘‘faceless gray hordes of sidewalk sliders who go from there to here without so much as a hop, skip or a jump.’’ That hopping and skipping sound like child’s play is no accident; Ellison’s prescription for society’s ills usually involves a return to adolescence. The ‘‘aboveground’’ scenes of ‘‘A Boy and His Dog’’ resemble a teenage boy’s fantasy, complete with movies and gymnasiums and naked girls. (The fantasy is even educational, as Vic notes the manner in which Quilla June puts on her bra. ‘‘I never...

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Mythic Patterns in Ellison’s A Boy and His Dog

Harlan Ellison’s A Boy and His Dog, as novella and film, is a cautionary fable employing satire and mythic patterns to define a future world that in some respects may already be with us. The ‘‘boy’’ is Vic (Don Johnson) and the ‘‘dog’’ is Blood (voice by Tim McIntire); their world is the American Southwest in 2024, shortly after World War IV and the near-total destruction of the human race. Vic is a ‘‘solo’’ operating with his dog, Blood, competing for survival and sex with other solos and their dogs and, also, with ‘‘roverpaks,’’ small tribes formed in the wake of the destruction of all other social order. Blood, however, is not the ordinary Canis familiaris of our world. By means of biological engineering, carried out to produce ‘‘skirmisher dogs’’ for the military, dogs have become more intelligent and, also, capable of telepathic communication with humans. Their sense of smell has been modified to be ultra-sensitive to humans so that they can locate enemies. Consequently, many of them, including Blood, have lost the ability to find their own food.

But these dogs find men to forage for them. The men cooperate partly because dogs are useful in the fight for survival, but primarily because the newmodel dogs are as competent at tracking down females as they are at locating enemies—a highly valuable skill in a world with a diminishing female population. Even among dogs of this new type, though, Blood seems extraordinary. Not only is he the sharpest ‘‘tail-scent’’ around, he is also intellectually more sophisticated than Vic and emotionally more mature than any of the humans we see in the world of 2024.

In Blood, we have one of the variations in mythic patterns and folk motifs that make both Ellison’s novella and Jones’s film so fascinating and disturbing. At first glance, Blood seems much like the wise magic animal of folk and fairy tales who comes to the aid of the hero when the hero is at an impasse. But Blood goes beyond this role to become Vic’s link to the lost pre-war civilization, teaching him reading, arithmetic, recent history, and ‘‘Edited English’’ grammar. He becomes the culture- bearer of the bombed-out wasteland, superior to Vic in everything but the necessary skills of animal survival. The normal relationship of human and animal is inverted.

This inversion and others that follow acquire significance when we see them against the structural pattern of the story. The pattern is the basic descent-containment-reascent pattern of initiation, which in primitive societies is usually a formalized ritual designed to bring a boy into manhood. It is also appears in myths of the hero, where the hero undertakes the task of renewing the wasteland. Through the many variations of the pattern, the task confronting the protagonist remains the same: to maintain conscious ‘‘human’’ control over the unconscious ‘‘animal’’ instincts and responses, thereby overcoming fear, fatigue, inattention or disobedience, or the temptation to indulge appetites such as hunger or the sex drive. Since the sexual appetite presents such a powerful and persistent temptation to the hero, the feminine becomes a symbol of the danger of losing consciousness and regressing to instinctual, unconscious motivation. On the other hand, the feminine can function as mediatrix of the life force that brings renewal to the wasteland. In myth, the feminine has either positive or negative value according to whether she overwhelms the hero and renders him ineffectual by depriving him of human consciousness or joins him in the task of rejuvenating the wasteland.

All the elements of this mythic situation are present in both the film and the novella: the bombed- out wasteland incapable of the renewal of life; the feminine sexual lure into the descent, represented by Quilla June Holmes (Suzanne Benton); a hero divided between using good sense and pursuing his sexual desires; and the necessity for rebirth (the goal of initiation).

The need for rebirth is implicit in the first part of the narrative in the images of the wasteland—the radiation-scorched plain—and, symbolically, in the preoccupation of all males with tracking down the few females who remain above ground. The impossibility of rebirth is implicit in the brutality and violence of the sexual relationship in Vic’s world. With a few exceptions, the women in this world hide from men, and, if found, are brutally raped and sometimes killed. As the film opens, Blood and Vic have tracked down a female only to find her already the captive of a roverpak. A long-distance shot gives us Vic and Blood’s view of the departing rovers, and we hear in the distance a young boy’s voice exclaim excitedly, ‘‘Did you see how she jerked when I cut her?’’ Vic finds the woman stabbed to death and expresses his view of the pity of it all: ‘‘Ah, why’d they have to do that? She was good for three or four more times yet.’’ Masculine and feminine are alien and hostile to one another; rebirth in such a world is impossible.

Cheated by the roverpak out of his own chance for rape, Vic takes Blood to a ‘‘beaver flick,’’ where Blood picks up the scent of a woman, disguised as a solo. Vic and Blood track her to a bombed-out YMCA, stand off a roverpak whose dogs have also picked up a female scent, and discover a woman from the downunder who is not only desirable but willing—very willing.

Quilla June Holmes is an escapee (apparently) from the State of Topeka, one of the subterranean retreats of American middle-class civilization, and she has never had such a good time. From Vic’s point of view she has only one flaw: she is concerned about love, offending Vic’s sense of propriety and wounding his ego by suggesting that he does not know a thing...

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