Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

American Involvement in the Vietnam War
The Vietnam War began with a gradual escalation of U.S. forces in Southeast Asia during the 1950s and early 1960s and lasted until 1975, with the North Vietnamese and the National Liberation Front fighting the South Vietnamese and the United States military. America became involved out of fear that if Vietnam became communist-controlled, communism would spread throughout Southeast Asia. At home, the war was unpopular. Demonstrations, sit-ins, and anti-war songs became common in 1960s America.

In 1968, Richard Nixon defeated Lyndon B. Johnson in the presidential election, promising ‘‘peace with honor.’’ As he failed to make progress in peace negotiations, Americans at home became increasingly cynical. This attitude was reflected directly and indirectly; while protestors continued to voice their disapproval, others wrote songs, fiction, and drama reflecting America’s deepening concern and cynicism.

Despite the difficulties surrounding the war, Nixon won reelection in 1972. In January 1973, all participants in the Vietnam War signed the Treaty of Paris. Among the terms of the Treaty of Paris were the withdrawal of American troops from South Vietnam (which occurred by the end of March) and a cease-fire.

The war’s casualties were immense; three to four million Vietnamese lost their lives, close to two million Laotians and Cambodians were killed after being drawn into the...

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(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The story is set in Arizona, in an unspecified post-apocalyptic time, after what appears to have been a thoroughly devastating nuclear war and environmental disaster. A reasonable guess at the calendar date could be around the turn of the twenty-first century, more than ten years but less than thirty years after the disaster. Vic and Blood wander through a landscape that is desolate, where little approximating food grows. The few people they meet are all trying desperately to survive on scavenged canned goods, and are willing to fight and kill for less than a meal.

It would be hard for either the dog or boy to survive for very long alone in the small town they enter. Far from being a helpful community, the people are preying on each other. Vic and Blood are no better: when they find a woman with her throat cut by rapists and thieves, Vic is upset that they have killed her already. She could have been raped a few more times. Hers is not an uncommon fate, and Vic is not unusual for a young rover.

The community where Quilla June lives seems much better at first glance. In this town, the genteel culture of the American Midwest has been recreated. Security is better in the underground bunker, and the people seem to be leading more civilized, cooperative lives. It is not apparent at first that Vic has been manipulated into entering the bunker, and for what reasons. Though this community may seem Utopian in contrast to the outside world, it is no...

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Literary Style

(Short Stories for Students)

Almost every element of ‘‘A Boy and His Dog’’ brings the dystopic setting to life. Dystopia is the opposite of utopia; it is a depiction of a world (usually in the future) that is bleak, emotionless, and harsh. Ellison utilizes descriptions of the physical world in addition to language, attitudes, and culture to fully relate the story’s dystopic setting.

Ellison’s descriptions of the physical landscape create a gloomy picture of post-World War III Earth. Vic mentions the ‘‘crumbled remains of the curb,’’ the ‘‘melted stub of a lamppost,’’ the ‘‘weedovergrown craters,’’ and the ‘‘empty corpses of blasted buildings.’’ Inside the YMCA, Vic notices a stench coming from a pile of dead bodies that were never buried after the war.

Almost immediately, Ellison demonstrates Vic and Blood’s severe language and attitudes. These characteristics are consistent throughout the story, reflecting their reaction to the hopeless world in which they live. They are products of their environment, so they speak with profanity and relate to each other harshly. Distrust is central to their world, which is evident in the way the characters interact with one another. Vic and Quilla June have no chance of ever achieving true intimacy, and it is hardly surprising that they betray each other. Vic and Blood are loyal friends, yet they often treat each other with disrespect and meanness.


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Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

There are clearly some autobiographical elements in Vic, who is the emotional offspring of the young, frustrated Harlan Ellison. The author manages to write the story from the viewpoint of an ignorant young man, one who would be a sociopath and very likely a convicted criminal in an ordinary real-world community. It is probable that Ellison drew on his experience as a young man running with a teen gang in Brooklyn, when creating the character of Vic.

Somehow Ellison shows readers that Vic has committed horrifying crimes and intends to do so in future, while simultaneously making it clear that Vic is the product of his environment and almost completely ignorant about other possible ways to behave—without excusing his crimes. Vic knows he is not a "nice" person. He does not seem to know how anyone can care for anyone else. It would seem that what the boy needs most of all is to learn about love and interdependence; and when he realizes what he knows, Vic is able to affirm that love and interdependence.

That he does so by choosing his faithful dog, Blood, over the conniving Quilla June is the stroke of genius that earned A Boy and his Dog the Nebula Award from the Science Fiction Writers of America.

Edgar Rice Burroughs would have written in a fortuitous lizard-beast for his hero to kill, to feed the loyal dog and the chastened girl. Theodore Sturgeon would have written of Vic's vigil over the dying dog, while the girl...

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Social Sensitivity

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

In Ellison's writing, and especially in this story, characters who harm or exploit others are carefully written so that it is clear that these characters are not good people, nor are they happy or admirable or worthy of emulation. The reader may come to understand what it feels like to be that person, but is not expected to want to be that person.

Characters in A Boy and His Dog can and do fight to defend themselves or their associates, and this is portrayed as necessary but to be avoided when possible. The risk of death or injury is very high, when all parties are desperate for survival; and there is little or no medical treatment for injuries.

It is very apparent that the author intends for the reader to see the difference between the violence that Vic commits to defend himself and Blood (and Quilla June, whom he regards as an exploitable short-term resource rather than a companion) and the unnecessarily malicious rape, theft, and murder that goes on among the surface- dwelling people, Vic included.

The author also makes a clear depiction of the subterranean town, where a thin veneer of genteel behavior conceals a hypocritically savage exploitation. Vic is not the only character that the reader may condemn for his crimes (even though he knows no other way for humans to interact). The people in the underground town know what cooperative behavior is necessary for a human community, but they send an ignorant teenage girl out...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Short Stories for Students)

Auer, Tom, ‘‘The Latest Dangerous Visions of Harlan Ellison: The Slayer of Great Beasts Strikes Again (& Again),’’ in Bloomsbury Review, May/June 1994.

Crow, John, and Richard Erlich, ‘‘Mythic Patterns in Ellison’s ‘A Boy and His Dog,’’’ in Extrapolation, Vol. 18, No. 2, May 1977, pp. 162–66.

cummings, e. e., A Selection of Poems, Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965.

Dillingham, Thomas F., ‘‘Harlan Ellison,’’ in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 8: Twentieth-Century American Science Fiction Writers, Gale Research, 1981, pp. 161–69.

Ellison, Harlan, ed., Dangerous Visions, New...

(The entire section is 363 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Short Stories for Students)

1960s: The Vietnam War is the first war that is brought into American homes via television. Instead of reading about battles and fallen soldiers in the newspaper, Americans tune into the news to see actual footage. This is shocking and disturbing, and it helps fuel the anti-war movement.

Today: American television audiences routinely view violence around the world. Wars, uprisings, riots, police chases, and stand-offs are common, and Americans expect to see footage of such events.

1960s: In 1968, Stanley Kubrick produces the classic science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey, based on the novel by Arthur C. Clark. The film centers on space travel, extraterrestrial life, and a computer named HAL.

Today: Steven Spielberg teams up with Stanley Kubrick Productions to produce the film A. I. This film centers on artificial intelligence and concerns an android boy who is programmed to love. He finds himself caught between the human world and the android world.

1960s: Because the Cold War still threatens world peace, the specter of World War III generates fear. Tension between the United States and the Soviet Union continues to fuel the arms race, and much emphasis is placed on which ‘‘superpower’’ has greater nuclear capability.

Today: The break-up of the Soviet Union during the early 1990s signaled the end of the Cold War. As a result, the threat of...

(The entire section is 241 words.)

Topics for Discussion

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. What expectations does a reader bring to a story?

2. What could the title A Boy and his Dog lead a reader to expect? Did the author probably intend this? What is the result?

3. In what ways is Vic like any boy of his age?

4. In what ways has he been shaped by his environment?

5. When does the reader realize that Blood is a dog, not a human?

6. Is Blood a "person"? Does he behave like a reasoning being?

7. Why is Blood making an effort to educate Vic? What good can the learning he imparts do for Vic? Or is it for his own benefit as well?

8. Was Vic wrong with his assumption that Quilla June was searching for danger and excitement?


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Ideas for Reports and Papers

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. So many people in this story ruin and waste whatever comes to hand, including other people. What is Ellison saying about human nature, even after disaster? Is there any chance for redemption, for individuals or humanity?

2. If Vic had been born the year that you were born, in your neighborhood, how would his life be different from the story? Is Vic entirely a product of his upbringing? What sort of childhood would be necessary for Vic to be a different person? Is he capable of being better or worse than he is?

3. There is a common saying that "Everyone is entitled to an opinion." One of the statements Ellison has made several times in his speeches and essays, including his nonfiction book The Glass...

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Topics for Further Study

(Short Stories for Students)

Read about dystopian literature. Other dystopic works include George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World, and Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. Why do you suppose some authors consider the future such a dark and frightening place? Can you relate to the human fear of the unknown future? Why or why not?

Imagine how the story would be different if Blood were not a dog but a different animal. Choose an animal and give it a history, a way of relating to Vic, and a name. Write a synopsis of the story in which you replace Blood with your new animal character.

Science fiction involves taking a scientific principle or a set of scientific facts and extending them to create a...

(The entire section is 248 words.)

Related Titles / Adaptations

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

A Boy and His Dog was adapted for a feature film, released in 1975. The director worked uncommonly closely with the author, and Harlan Ellison has never been so satisfied before or since with the conversion of his writing to a visual medium. The film stars a young Don Johnson as Vic and an excellent dog actor as Blood, who earned a Patsy Award for his work. The film is available on video in libraries and video stores. Rated R, the film is completely unsuited for young viewers and is upsetting for many adults. It is comparable in many respects to Stanley Kubrick's film version of A Clockwork Orange.

Ellison has written a version of the story for the comic book scripts Vic and Blood 1 (Mad Dog) 1987,...

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Media Adaptations

(Short Stories for Students)

‘‘A Boy and His Dog’’ was adapted to film in 1975 by LQ/JAF Production Company. The adaptation was written and directed by L. Q. Jones, and the film starred Don Johnson as Vic. This film won the 1975 Hugo Award for best dramatic presentation.

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What Do I Read Next?

(Short Stories for Students)

Ellison’s 1993 Mefisto in Onyx is a novel combining crime novel characters with supernatural elements. When a district attorney suspects that a convicted man is innocent, she persuades a man who can read minds to uncover the truth. Critics praise the book for its pace, originality, and characterization.

Robert A. Heinlein’s classic science fiction novel, Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), is the story of Valentine Michael Smith, a man brought up by Martians who arrives on earth as a foreigner. This Hugo Award-winning novel continues to intrigue readers with its plot, characters, and controversial topics.

George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) is a classic novel describing a dystopic future in...

(The entire section is 128 words.)

For Further Reference

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Bleiler, Richard, editor. Science Fiction Writers, 2nd edition. New York: Scribner's, 1999. Includes an excellent biographical essay on Harlan Ellison and his multi genre writing.

Ellison, Harlan. The Essential Ellison. Omaha: Nemo Press, 1987. A collection of eightsix selected works, including fiction, essays, and reviews.

Ellison, Harlan. The Glass Teat. New York: Ace, 1970. A collection of essays commenting on the impact of television.

Harlan Ellison Web Site http://www. harlanellison.com. October 19, 2001. The official Web site of Harlan Ellison, giving information about the author's life and works. It also provides a list of themes for his stories.

(The entire section is 95 words.)