A Boy and His Dog (1969)
by Harlan Ellison
I was being my typical asshole self one day in the seventh grade and got sent to detention. I had a copy of They Came from Outer Space: 12 Classic Science Fiction Tales That Became Major Motion Pictures, a collection of stories that were the basis for films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Thing from Another World. One of these stories was Harlan Ellison's "A Boy and His Dog."
I loved science fiction and, up to that point in my life, was happy to read about spaceships and aliens, robots and ray guns.
Ellison didn't write science fiction in a way I'd read it before. His stories had sex and confusion and no clear-cut heroes. There was violence, but not the violence I'd seen in movies. It was sloppy and sudden, like I'd seen on playgrounds. And there was a vertiginous sense that science fiction wasn't some gleaming antigravity future I'd never be a part of. It was two steps away and might come roaring down on us if someone pressed the wrong button.
"A Boy and His Dog" is about a dystopian future where human scavengers sift through a post-WWIII wasteland, and intelligent telepathic dogs, bred for warfare, use the remaining humans and their opposable thumbs to help find food, open doors and cans, and pull triggers on guns. It was Lord of the Flies, postpubescent and pissed off.
Ellison didn't change my life so much as he changed my reading habits, revealing a dozen branching paths and side alleys where before there seemed to be an orderly road to adulthood. He brought rawness and confusion and awe and real terror, and I'm forever indebted.
Patton Oswalt is the author of Zombie Spaceship Wasteland