"Boys" by Carol Emshwiller: An Appreciation by Jenn Reese
How does Carol Emshwiller do it, then? "Boys" contains only a few details, only a few names, only the barest hints about time and place. We can't tell if it's science fiction or fantasy. If anything, it's timeless and placeless, capable of existing anywhere and anywhen. But instead of distancing the reader, this absence of detail serves to magnify the themes that Emshwiller is exploring. Nothing distracts, dilutes, or distances the reader from the story and its lessons.
Two armies of men exist in the mountains on either side of a valley. The women live in villages between them and bear sons and daughters for both sides, though their sons are always stolen to join the war effort. The men have been fighting so long, no one even knows how it started. The women, however, have decided to end it--no matter what the price.
The story reminds me of the Dar Williams song "When I Was a Boy." Both deal with gender roles, and what humanity loses when we deny ourselves the full range of experiences. Emshwiller's story takes this idea to extremes, but they're terrifyingly believable extremes. Every time I see a little boy playing with a GI Joe action figure, I think of "Boys."
I want to thank Ellen Datlow and all the folks at SCI FICTION for making Carol Emshwiller's work accessible to the world for free. I've never read an Emshwiller story that hasn't made me think, that hasn't enriched my life in some way. In this, I'm sure I'm not alone.
Link to story.