Blue Kansas Sky is subtitled Four Short Novels of Memory, Magic, Surmise, & Estrangement; and this book, Michael Bishop's sixth collection, fully delivers on that promise. The novellas it gathers are all substantial, ambitious, and independent works, novels in miniature, composed with a restrained poetic flair, invested with a grave moral urgency, and very much concerned with the resolution of estrangement by means speculative, magical, and mnemonic. James Morrow provides an intelligent analysis along these lines in his substantial Introduction; but the novellas speak eloquently for themselves. They are fine fictions by one of the finest SF and Fantasy writers of the last thirty years, and read accordingly.
The contents of Blue Kansas Sky are arranged out of their order of composition, so a systematic critical survey of these stories must begin at volume's end. This is in any case appropriate, as "Death and Designation Among the Asadi", first published in 1973 and later expanded into the novel Transfigurations, is probably the best entry here. It is clearly an early work, written in youthful creative heat, flamboyantly intense, an earnest effort at the sort of Conradian tropical tale so beloved of Seventies SF writers; and in this project it succeeds brilliantly. Its alienated first-person narration is convincing in its cynical introspection; its detailed depiction of the mysteriously devolved, arrogant yet self-loathing hominids of an alien jungle world is fascinating, a studied combination of diagnostic lucidity and irreducible strangeness; and its emphasis on xenological observation reduces in no way the surging momentum of its plot. Bishop achieves a telling resonance between the dismaying collective psychology of the Asadi and that of the human race, which in the novella's background has made a wasteland of the Earth, extinguishing its own enriching cultural variety and dooming itself to alienated loneliness. "Death and Designation" is of a piece with the great anthropological SF stories of the Seventies: good company indeed.
"Apartheid, Superstrings, and Mordecai Thubana", first issued as a chapbook by Axolotl Press in 1989, is a little less felicitous, but powerful enough. Here, Bishop seeks to create a symbolic correspondence between South Africa's notorious segregation regime and the physics of superstrings and dark matter: if only we could contrive a viable Theory of Everything, reconcile visible and invisible matter, trace the superstrings at the root of all particles to their and so our common origin, our divisions and consequent alienation from one another might end. Well, perhaps; but this grand thesis is not fully enough argued by Bishop, and his plotted linkages of apartheid and tentative scientific arcana are not altogether convincing. But the story itself--that of an Afrikaner, Gerrit Myburgh, who suffers a car accident, enters the gravity well of the black majority, beholds the covert iniquities of white supremacism for himself, and comes to embody the mysteries of Bishop's argument in his own physical nature--is gripping, an accomplished instance of the anti-totalitarian parable. Bishop's outrage is fully justified, and his storytelling instincts largely redeem the figurative awkwardness of his narrative scheme.
"Cri De Coeur" (1994), Bishop's most recent major work of straight SF, is another tale fuelled by moral disgust, but its focus is personal rather than social. Aboard one of three "wheelships" carrying thousands of human colonists to the Epsilon Eridani system, Abel Gwiazda has opted to father a child, and when it emerges that his partner is pregnant with a Down's Syndrome baby, he (with her full consent, needless to say), decides it must be born, must be nurtured, whatever its disadvantages in the utilitarian environment of a colony vessel approaching its destination. The child, Dean, turns out good-natured and lovable, and most people love him and respect Abel's humane and self-sacrificing conduct in raising a handicapped son; but another colonist, Mikol, hates Dean ostentatiously and hurtfully. Bishop's determination to make a Hard SF story function as a compelling human document is a little strained, the reconciliation of the antagonists' opinions too easy in too sentimental a context; but there is ample compensation in the details of shipboard life, the ships' terrifying arrival at Epsilon Eridani, and the political confrontations that follow. There is quiet power here, a profound consideration of the ethical and ideological implications of colonising other planets.
Opening the collection is "Blue Kansas Sky", a new mainstream literary novella which, drawing on the details of Bishop's own childhood, paints with finely observed local colour and psychological nuance the growth of a boy to maturity in small-town Kansas in the mid-Twentieth Century. Magic realism is evident at times, especially when a tornado serendipitously changes the protagonist's life; but Bishop is intent here on realising the ordinary in ordinary terms, and the means of reconciliation here--the reconciliation of lonely boy and outcast uncle, of childhood with adulthood--is resolutely ordinary. In an SF collection, "Blue Kansas Sky" may, consequently, seem out of place, but in fact it has significance in speculative terms all the same, as a glimpse into how formative experiences might conspire to generate an SF writer, and into how loving the mundane specificity of a home town can in time effloresce into a fantasists' genius of otherworldly place. "Blue Kansas Sky" is, in any case, an excellent story by any reasonable universal measure.
Blue Kansas Sky is a fine anthology, one of the landmark collections of 2000. And as a demonstration of the compact forcefulness of the short novel form, it may well aid in sustaining that embattled literary species, inside and outside SF--for which courageous effort much praise is due.
(Order from: Golden Gryphon Press, 3002 Perkins Road, Urbana, IL 61802, USA, or visit www.goldengryphon.com)
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© Nick Gevers 7 October 2000