Romance of the Wasteland and the Call of the Ruins
by Walter Phippeny
Born in 1976, I was a child of the 80s, and when I was growing up, the Post-Apocalyptic genre found a lot of popularity in the shadow of the Cold War. We had the Mad Max films, Zelazny’s Damnation Alley, Interplay’s video game “Wasteland” which I played on my Commodore 64, the TSR roleplaying setting “Gamma World”, not to mention the hundreds of knock-offs and cash-grabs that tried to profit from the trend.
Patton Oswalt, in his book Zombie Spaceship Wasteland carves up the youthful Science-Fiction fandom into three types: each alienated from modern society and drawn to one of the three settings where the world has been destroyed or left behind. These types are: the Zombie who is enthralled with a scourge of undead; the Spaceship who is drawn to space opera and distant worlds; and the Wasteland. Here’s his description of the Wasteland:
Post-nuke, post–meteor strike, or simply a million years into the future—that’s the perfect environment for the Wasteland’s imagination to gallop through. The wasteland is inhabited by people or, for variety, mutants. At least mutants are outgrowths of humans. Mutants—the main inhabitants of postapocalyptic environments—are more familiar. Variations of the human species grown amok—isn’t that how some teenage outcasts already feel? Mutants bring comfort. You don’t have to figure out alien biology or exotic, inhuman cultures or religions. At the most, mutants will have weird mental powers or practice cannibalism. The heroes are unmutated humans, wandering across deserts (always, weirdly, wearing leather or tattered overcoats—suburban teens are accustomed to air-conditioning, so it’s not until they’re older that they learn the importance of fabrics that breathe) and carrying what they need. Wastelands are great at stocking belt pouches, backpacks, and pockets. At any time, Wastelands suspect they’re going to need to grab whatever’s at hand and head for the horizon.
This concept really struck me when I read it, and I was most definitely a Wasteland growing up. One of my first short stories in middle school was set in a wasteland.
When I was nine or ten, I discovered the film “A Boy and His Dog” in the VHS library of one of my friends. I watched it. Then I re-watched it. Then I watched it again. I was hooked. As a Wasteland, it was in my wheelhouse and up my alley. I remember finding the comic book adaptation, Vic and Blood, in my local comic store, O’Leary’s, in the late 80s; I flipped through it, but didn’t have enough money to buy it. 11 year-olds are usually pretty hard up for cash. I always had the intention of looking up the Harlan Ellison short story which served as the source material, but never got around to it. Time passed.
When Ellison’s Vic and Blood was brought up as possibility for the Otherland’s Book Club, I supported reading it. I would finally get a chance to re-visit Ellison’s vision of the scorched Earth and see how well his text was translated into film.
Vic and Blood, the novel, is a slight extension of the original short story, split into three parts: “Eggsucker”, “A Boy and His Dog”, and “Run, Spot, Run.” This book is in itself a smaller part of a larger narrative “Blood’s a Rover” which Ellison claims to have written, but has yet to see publication. The story follows Vic, an adolescent solo hunting for food and sex in the wastes, and his dog, Blood, with whom he shares a telepathic link. The concept of master and animal are inverted here with Blood being Vic’s master; Blood has a deep knowledge of history and the world while Vic is young, reckless, and ignorant. But, in truth, the relationship is more partners than master and pet. Vic spends his time scavenging canned food from buried ruins, trading with what patches of civilization that exist, trying not to get robbed and/or killed by the ‘rover packs’, and looking for women to rape. Yes. Our protagonist is an unapologetic rapist. When Vic and Blood happen upon a girl disguised as a boy things take a turn.
Ellison gives us a bit of world building in his wasteland: we have the mutant “screamers”; human-animal telepathy; creepy crawlies; the “Downunder” societies, living in advanced under ground shelters that have survived the war; gangs of Mad Max-esque raiders, etc. – by the way, I’m pretty sure that the “Downunder” was the direct inspiration for the entire “Fallout” series of video games – but, in the end, Ellison doesn’t get as much mileage out of his world as he could have. His characters are a little flat and not very likable; the main character is, as mentioned, an unapologetic rapist, after all. I think the film did a better job of bringing the Downunder to life, adding all kinds of touches that made it a more interesting, and sinister, set piece. Even the character of Quilla June is given more motivation and depth in the film. The film took a lot of flak from feminists when it came out in 1976. Joanna Russ, acclaimed feminist science-fiction author, had this to say about it:
“The Denver area is full of male feminists. Two of them, both science-fiction writers, urged me to see A BOY AND HIS DOG, the feature-length film made from Harlan Ellison’s science-fiction story of the same name. Both men are friends of mine, and Harlan Ellison is a friend of mine also; yet must I proclaim publicly right here that sending a woman to see A BOY AND HIS DOG is like sending a Jew to a movie that glorifies Dachau; you need not be a feminist to loathe this film.” from Jump Cut, no. 12-13, 1976, pp. 14-17
Well, Ellison heard those critiques. And he thought about them. The new material written after the film – “Eggsucker” and “Run, Spot, Run” – seem to be a direct response to the misogyny accusations. In the introduction, Ellison spends whole pages defending himself against these claims and distancing himself from the director’s choices. When reading these new additions, I felt like they were driven by the real world, rather than by the fictional setting. It’s simply Ellison waving his arms and shouting, “I’m a misanthropist, not a misogynist! See!” In attempting to make his work more progressive, Ellison just makes a fool of himself. The Vic we meet in “Boy and His Dog” is not the same Vic we find the following chapter “Run, Spot, Run”: suddenly he’s burdened with a conscious he didn’t have before. If you want to take Vic down this arc, and it would be a great thing to do, you need time to build it. You need to make me feel his internal change. When characters start behaving in ways that are contrary, it means the author’s meta-intentions have taken over the narrative. Why is this character acting this way? Because the plot says so. Not very compelling!
In the end, I have to admit that I was drawn to this book out of nostalgia, and enjoyed it as an addendum to a work of fiction I loved in my youth. If I was reading this story for the first time, without introduction, I don’t think I would have gotten much out of it. If you too are a Wasteland, I would recommend watching the film, and, if you really like it and want more of the story, Vic and Blood would be worth a read. At least it’s very short. But, if you’re a Wasteland like me, and you’ve never read Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban, check that out instead.