Like science, fiction is often built on the shoulders of those who came before. That is to say, most images from our imagination comes from putting a twist on what we’ve already seen. In horror, we can see a very clear progression from Poe->Lovecraft->Kolchak: the Night Stalker->X-Files. Though it seems odd to say it, building on the work of others is the surest way to come up with new ideas.
In the 1970s, post-nuclear fiction had been developing into a small (but growing) genre for nearly 20 years. Many nuclear holocaust films in the 50s and 60s were about the start (and end) of WWIII rather than survival in the radioactive wastelands to follow. Dr. Strangelove, for example, is counted as a nuclear holocaust film.
In 1975, something happened to solidify the tone of a desert wasteland. Harlan Ellison’s A Boy and His Dog provided audiences with a visual medium to express the post-atomic world. The little details in storytelling, set design, and costumes would inevitably shape the Mad Max franchise, the Fallout franchise, and much more.
A Boy and His Dog would define the tone of the post-nuclear genre in 4 ways:
- The Wasteland
The Wasteland: A Boy and His Dog portrays the world as an endless post-apocalyptic desert. This would set the backdrop for the entire genre as even Fallout 3 (a game set in Washington D.C.) was comprised of desert. However, A Boy and His Dog redefined the post-nuclear landscape by setting the entire thing in the deserts of Arizona. From a storytelling perspective, this puts the audience in the mindset that life is hard, water is scarce, food is hard to come by, and the survivors are more than likely to be desperate bandits (creating a sci-fi wild west motif). Years later, Mad Max and Fallout would use the concept of endless radioactive desert to build their own universes.
What’s interesting about the wasteland of A Boy and His Dog is most of the world we see is still in one piece. Everything is underground, usually in a somewhat serviceable condition. Early in the film, Vic and Blood come across a slave driver mining cans of food. In the second act, Vic takes refuge in an underground hospital.
40 years later, the Mad Max video game would expand on this idea with The Dunes, an area of the wasteland which is functionally identical.
The third act of A Boy and His Dog takes place in an underground bunker/town called Topeka. The American government has survived and upholds a caricature of 1950s America with a powerful metal fist. This seems like a clear jumping point for Fallout to build off of, especially since the tone of 1950’s Americana took greater hold of the series from Fallout 3 onward.
Settlements: Using the visual medium, A Boy and His Dog was able to craft a living world full of tiny details to express the desperation and restructuring of the post-nuclear world. As all the resources are buried underground, survivors are forced to make their homes out of junk. The opening credits depict a hut made from nothing but discarded tires. Vic begins his adventure in a lean-to made from sheet metal and barrels. The wasteland theater has a wall made of car parts, sheet metal, and other junk, reminiscent of Fallout’s Junktown and The Road Warrior’s refinery.
These little details demonstrate how, even decades after the apocalypse, survivors have only done what is necessary to trade with each other and survive. A Boy and His Dog was stuck in the post-apocalyptic mindset, but began the movement toward the post-post-apocalyptic genre, a concept that was fully developed by Fallout.
Mad Max 3 and Fallout would later develop towns and settlements with unique cultures, but it all began with A Boy and his Dog.
Clothing: From the savage biker gear of Mad Max to the settler outfits in Fallout, Wasteland attire is generally described as a mixture of whatever you can cobble together. Nowhere is this truer than in A Boy and His Dog. The tone for clothing is set fairly early with the slave driver. His outfit is a mixture of things that look interesting, but have no practical use: a leopard print naval hat, several brightly colored quilts, a crest of feathers, and a handful of gold rings. This shows the breakdown into tribalism and feudalism seen in both Mad Max 2 and Fallout.
It is easy to see how A Boy and His Dog influenced post-nuclear fashion as a cosplay of any character from the film would fit right in at Wasteland Weekend. For 40 years, the manner in which post-nuclear survivors choose their clothes has remained the same.
Mutants: One of the best parts about the post-nuclear genre is the mutants. Post-apocalyptic scenarios with zombies are generally limited to caricatures of humans, with some variation of speed and muscle mass. Nuclear mutants can be (and have been) nearly anything as there is no limit to how familiar creatures can be twisted into something utterly monstrous.
A Boy and His Dog established future use of mutants with Blood the talking dog and followed that with the legendary burnpit screamers. Although certainly unrealistic, mutants bring danger, fear, and life to the wasteland. The incorporation of mutants portrays a changing world, one that will never be the same and practically puts the audience on another planet. Mutants are critical to the post-nuclear genre as they make the world feel alive. The Fallout, S.T.A.L.K.E.R., and Metro franchises owes much of their success to the addition of creatures transformed by radiation.
Although Mad Max 2 defined the functionality of the post-nuclear genre, A Boy and His Dog set the tone and feel nearly a decade years before. Despite being 40 years old, Harlan Ellison’s work has become a cult icon of the genre and will continue to inspire, despite its outward simplicity.