• search-icon

A Tale of Two Wastelands: Fallout and Harlan Ellison's "A Boy and His Dog" 

Many Fallout fans still don't know that the franchise was partially inspired by Harlan Ellison's seminal short story. 

Of all the many homages and references woven into the Fallout series, one of the most beloved is probably Dogmeat, the player’s NPC German Shepherd. Everyone’s favorite canine companion/mine detonator has shown up in every Fallout game since the series’ inception, but a lot of fans still don’t know his origins. Appropriately enough, they involve a story titled “A Boy and His Dog.”

A Boy and His Dog

By Harlan Ellison

War Never Changes

Even if you don’t know the name Harlan Ellison, you probably know his work. Ellison, who passed away June 2018 at 84, was one of the most successful speculative fiction authors of all time. His short stories like “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” and screenplays like Star Trek’s “The City on the Edge of Forever" changed the sci-fi landscape irrevocably. In 1969, he wrote a short story titled “A Boy and His Dog,” which tells the tale of a 15-year-old wasteland scavenger named Vic and his telepathic dog Blood. The story was also adapted into a 1975 film, which Fallout designer Jesse Heinig told The Escapist in 2009 "inspired Fallout on many levels" (including Dogmeat's name, which was taken from a nickname Vic gives Blood in the film).

The story takes place in Kansas in the year 2034, roughly 40 years after the Third World War, which left the United States a bombed-out, radioactive wasteland. Vic is a ‘solo’, a solitary wastelander, while other survivors are part of roverpaks, armed gangs of wandering looters. 

RELATED: The Best of the Best: 10 Must-Read Works by Harlan Ellison 

Blood is the result of pre-War experiments carried out 65 years ago that spliced dolphin spinal fluid into dogs, creating successively smarter and more telepathic offspring for use in commando teams. However, gaining telepathy caused these dogs to lose their ability to hunt, meaning that Blood has to depend on a human to feed him.

A Boy and His Dog
  • Vic and Blood as depicted in the 1975 movie adaptation of "A Boy and His Dog."

  • Photo Credit: LQ/JAF Productions

If you're a Fallout fan reading "A Boy and His Dog" for the first time, you'll start to notice some other similarities between the two apocalyptic worlds. For instance, as "A Boy and His Dog" progresses, there’s a reference to “burnpit-screamers,” which seem to resemble ghouls — including a green, glowing type that might have been an inspiration for the radioactive ‘Glowing Ones’ of Fallout.

There’s also a depiction of a boxy sentry robot with long arms—similar to Fallout's Robo-Brain—and a lot of attention is given to the various guns, including a Browning .22, a .45 automatic, and a 30-06. There’s even a shootout in an abandoned YMCA in which Vic has to fight off a roverpak, and it bears a strong resemblance to a Fallout 3-style gun battle. 

RELATED: Robot Takeover: This New Book Explores the Post-Apocalyptic World of 2083 

A Boy and His Dog
  • Photo Credit: Bethesda

In addition, the movies and references in "A Boy and His Dog" are distinctly retro—Vic watches the 1948 crime film Raw Deal, and compares himself to the gangster film star Jimmy Cagney. 

Likewise, the creators of Fallout have made their love of classic Americana readily apparent: some groups in Fallout adopt the dress and culture of Italian Mafiosos, Elvis-style rock-and-rollers, and even greasers. A special ability in the game also allows players to randomly receive help from a 1940s film noir detective called “The Mysterious Stranger."

The Downunder and the Vaults

A Boy and His Dog
  • Photo Credit: Bethesda

Both Fallout and “A Boy and His Dog” juxtapose that old-school Americana with nightmarish dystopia. The best example of this in "A Boy and His Dog" is the ‘downunder’, a collection of extensive underground bunkers full of middle-class folk who rode out the apocalypse in relative comfort. The scientists who built these artificial subterranean paradises were immediately exiled to make sure there was no free thought, dissent, or intellectual challenges to ruin the illusion.

RELATED: 18 Best Sci-Fi Book Series You Won't Want to Miss 

The underground city of Topeka (which is reached in the story via a high-tech elevator) is a carefully crafted facsimile of a pastoral Midwestern paradise:

People were all over the place. Sitting in rockers on their front porches, raking their lawns, hanging around the gas station, sticking pennies in gumball machines, painting a white stripe down the middle of the road, selling newspapers on a corner, listening to an oompah band in a shell in a park, playing hopscotch and pussy-in-the-corner, polishing a fire engine…

In the 1975 movie adaptation of “A Boy and His Dog,” the dystopian aspect of Topeka is kicked up a few notches: everyone in the city wears whiteface, and the community is run by a secret group of people called the Committee, who capture Vic in order to harvest his sperm. The vaults in Fallout are similar to this; they’re generally run by an Overseer and are more often than not designed as elaborate sociological experiments rather than sanctuaries for their inhabitants. 

A Boy and His Dog
  • Photo Credit: LQ/JAF Productions

Hackin', Whackin', and Smackin'

Let’s get one thing straight: “A Boy and His Dog” is a disturbing, messed-up story. As a protagonist, Vic is a kid straight out of an American version of Lord of the Flies (complete with his own arsenal of guns). He’s a foul-mouthed, short-tempered murderer, and his relationship with Blood works like this: Vic provides them both with food, and Blood hunts down women for Vic to rape. 

In fact, it’s Vic’s sexual violence that drives the story: he and other male wastelanders like to hang out in a movie theater with their dogs to watch violent action movies and old pornos (nicknamed “beaver flicks”), and it’s during a triple-feature that Blood picks up on the scent of a woman hiding in the theater. The rest of the story is spent tracking her down.

RELATED: Stellar Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Sales This Month 

In Fallout, there's nothing approaching the barbaric arrangement between Vic and Blood. As you read the short story, Vic’s nonchalance and even enjoyment towards the depraved things he does and sees starts to sink in. You realize that this is the new normal for Vic. 

When Vic compares the wasteland to the ‘downunder’, his thoughts sum up just how twisted his worldview has gotten:

…the people who’d settled [the downunder] were squares of the worst kind. Southern Baptists, Fundamentalists, lawanorder goofs, real middle-class squares with no taste for the wild life. And they’d gone back to a kind of life that hadn’t existed for a hundred and fifty years…They didn’t want any progress, they didn’t want any dissent, they didn’t want anything that would make waves…The best time in the world had been just before the First War, and they figured if they could keep it like that, they could live quiet lives and survive. Shit! I’d go nuts in one of the downunders.
A Boy and His Dog Wastelands
  • Photo Credit: LQ/JAF Productions

For Vic, living in safety, peace, and security is maddening—he prefers ‘the wild life’: stealing, scavenging, killing, and raping. If the real Vic showed up in Fallout (rather than a namesake trader), he wouldn’t be the protagonist—he’d be on the ‘WANTED’ posters.

Want more sci-fi like "A Boy and His Dog"? Download Ellison's other influential works! 

"Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman

By Harlan Ellison

Again, Dangerous Visions

By Harlan Ellison

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream

By Harlan Ellison

From the Land of Fear

By Harlan Ellison


By Harlan Ellison

This post is sponsored by Open Road Media. Thank you for supporting our partners, who make it possible for The Portalist to continue publishing the stellar stories you love.

Keep scrolling for more stellar stories!
Published on 26 Aug 2018

scroll up