Published in Harlan Ellison’s 1969 short-story collection, The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World, ‘‘A Boy and His Dog’’ is one of the author’s favorite works. Critics also appreciated the story, and it won the 1969 Nebula Award (awarded by Science Fiction Writers of America) for Best Novella. Six years later, it was adapted as a Hugo Award-winning film, with Don Johnson starring as Vic. ‘‘A Boy and His Dog’’ is considered one of Ellison’s most compelling stories, and the author expanded it into a novel in 1989.
The story takes place in post-apocalyptic America, where Vic and Blood (his telepathic dog) must fight to survive. The story’s violence, explicit sexuality, and coarse language shock many readers, although these elements support Ellison’s harsh presentation of the future world. Set in a bleak environment and carrying dark themes, it is often read as a cautionary tale about what the future may hold.
Vic and Blood, a boy and his dog, look out for each other in a hard, cruel world some years after a nuclear war. Through a telepathic link, they communicate at least as effectively as through speech. They work to meet each other's basic needs for survival: food, companionship, and the relief of despair or boredom.
Blood's efforts to educate Vic are not as successful as he would like; Vic would far rather that Blood used his keen sense of smell to find him a girl. During this search they enter a small, rough community of desperate people who prey on each other. Blood does locate a girl, and together Vic and Blood track her out of a jury-rigged cinema. The girl, Quilla June, is seemingly not afraid of Vic or his rough ideas of sex—though she ought to be. He tracked her down with the intent of raping her several times before either murdering her or abandoning her to die. His plan is interrupted by an attack, and Vic and Blood have to fight several desperate toughs for their lives.
After they escape, Quilla June reveals where she has come from: an underground community in a nuclear fallout bunker, as Blood and Vic had guessed. Quilla June insists that Vic come alone with her inside the bunkered community, leaving Blood outside. The people of the hidden community welcome Vic, but also enslave him as a sperm donor for their young women, as they have no healthy young men. This entrapment was their intent when Quilla June was sent out.
However, the leaders of the community did not expect Quilla June to revolt when she is not made part of the ruling committee. She kills her parents and others while helping Vic escape from bondage and leave the underground community.
At the hidden entrance, Vic finds that Blood is still waiting for him, though it has been days. Blood is weak from starvation.
Vic cannot keep alive both this girl, who is ignorant of the outside world, and the dog who has saved his life many times. He knows which of them will be a faithful companion for heart and mind as well as helping him survive. He has to choose which he must kill to feed the other.
"A boy loves his dog."
‘‘A Boy and His Dog’’ is narrated by Vic, a teenaged boy who has a telepathic dog named Blood. The story is set in 2024 post-apocalypse America. Rubble, craters, and molten metal mark the landscape. There are two civilizations of survivors—those above ground and those below. Those who live below are called ‘‘downunders,’’ and their cities resemble those of pre-World War I America. Vic lives in the wreckage above ground and is a ‘‘solo,’’ which is someone who is not a member of one of the gangs (called ‘‘roverpaks’’) that wander the streets.
As the story opens, Vic tells Blood to find him a woman, but Blood is unsuccessful because most women are downunders. Blood, like most dogs who stay with solos, was bred for intellect, telepathy, and an acute sense of smell. He relies on Vic for food because he lacks the ability to hunt, and Vic relies on Blood to help him find women and to warn him of danger.
Vic and Blood go to the movies, where Blood senses a woman. When she leaves, they follow her into a shelled YMCA building, where Vic prepares to rape her. A roverpak arrives, and they all hide. After Vic and Blood kill several of the rovers, Vic sets the building on fire. He, Blood, and the girl, Quilla June, hide in the boiler room, hoping the roverpak will think they are dead. Vic and Quilla June have sex repeatedly before Vic and Blood check to see if the roverpak is gone after the fire.
When Vic returns to the boiler room, Quilla June knocks him unconscious and escapes. When Vic awakens, he is enraged and heads for the dropshaft that will take him to her underground hometown of Topeka. When he reaches the bottom, an automated green tram (called a ‘‘sentry’’) shackles him and takes him to an office. There, a group of people led by a man named Lew tell him that he was lured to Topeka because too few of their men are able to father children. Vic agrees to help them repopulate the city, but he wants Quilla June first.
Vic is told to walk around the city for the next week, so that the residents can get accustomed to him. Topeka is a picturesque city where older people rock on front porches, kids play hopscotch or throw sticks for their dogs, men tip their hats at ladies, and families visit the community swimming pool. The lawns are manicured, the streets are quaint, and people enjoy being social. Vic feels confined by the politeness and picture-perfect lifestyle. Determined to escape, he finds out where his guns are being kept and where there is another way out of Topeka besides the dropshaft.
At the end of the week, Lew and two other men—one of whom is Quilla June’s father—take Vic to Quilla June. When they get to the house, Vic and Quilla June go to the bedroom, where she starts crying and apologizing. Vic’s vindictive streak fades, and he asks if she wants to escape with him. She says yes, and Vic kills her father and the other man, and they run out of the house past Lew and Quilla June’s mother. After retrieving Vic’s guns, they run for the escape route, but Quilla June stops to shoot some of the people chasing them. She even tries to kill her mother. Above ground, they find Blood waiting.
Blood is famished because there is no food for miles around, and his wounds from the fight with the roverpak at the YMCA need attention. He warns them that the roverpak knows they are alive. Vic is concerned about how to take care of and feed Blood, but Quilla June wants to find safety. She thinks that because she and Vic have said they love each other, Vic will make her his first priority. At the end of the story, however, she is gone, and Blood has just eaten a huge meal. Although it is not stated explicitly, it is clear that Vic has killed Quilla June to feed Blood.