Visions of Paradise

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Blue Kansas Sky

Now that I have discussed Michael Bishop being my favorite writer for nearly thirty years, I offer a review of one of his recent collections of short fiction. I must warn you though that whatever I say in this review is outright prejudiced. While I try to be fairly objective in my opinions, it is quite possible I have grown so subjective toward Michael Bishop’s writing that I cannot even discern my own prejudice. So I apologize for any inaccuracies in my comments.

In the years since the publication of Brittle Innings, Michael Bishop has published only two mystery novels in collaboration with Paul DiFilippo, and three new short fiction collections, At the City Limits of Fate, Brighten to Incandescence, and Blue Kansas Sky. The latter book might be the best of the three, containing 3 classic Bishop novellas and one new publication, the title novella.

“Blue Kansas Sky” is a coming-of-age story, totally non-sfnal. It’s the story of Sonny Peacock, who lives alone with his mom. His father died in a prison riot after having been arrested for attempted robbery. The robbery had been the plan of Sonny’s uncle Rory who received a lighter sentence at the trial because Sonny’s father took the rap for him. As the story begins, Uncle Rory has just been released from prison and is returning to Sonny’s town.

This is not a heavily-plotted story, but a telling of Sonny’s life throughout most of his teen years. The people in his life who play important roles in the story include his uncle Rory, his mom who never gets over her resentment at Rory for abandoning her husband at the trial, and his closest classmates. The story is not major Bishop, because it really does not have any overriding philosophical or moral point to make, but it is a rich examination of growing up, and well worth the long wait since Brittle Innings.

“Apartheid, Superstrings, and Mordecai Thubana” is about precisely what the title describes. While driving through the wilds of South Africa late one night, a rich Afrikanar accidentally crashes his Cadillac into an elephant. Trapped, he is rescued by a busload of black Africans being taken on a several hours’ long ride to their daily jobs. On the bus he meets Mordecai Thubana and from him learns about superstrings while experiencing apartheid firsthand at the hands of government troops they encounter on the way. It is a harrowing experience which shakes him out of his smug ignorance and makes him see the truth of the world in which he lives for the first time in his life.

At first it seemed as if the science fictional element of the story–a humanization of the superstring theory of the universe as the Afrikanar becomes unseen matter himself–is little more than a sidebar to the story, an attempt to blend two parallel plotlines into one. But as the Afrikanar’s descent into the depths of Apartheid becomes deeper and more revealing, it becomes apparent that there was no other way for him to experience the truth of Apartheid other than by being invisible to the government minions himself.

Overall, “Apartheid...” is a strong, gripping, emotional story which is both revealing and chilling. This is one of Michael Bishop’s finest novellas.

At first glance “Cri de Coeur” seems like a most atypical Michael Bishop story: a trio of immense spaceships are taking several thousand carefully-selected humans to colonize a new planet in the Epsilon Eridani system. It is the closest to a hard-science story I’ve ever read by Bishop, since it is filled with elaborate descriptions of the ship on which the narrator is a passenger, and the climactic scene involves the important decision the passengers must make when their intended home proves uninhabitable.

But that’s just surface description. The novella’s real concern is the reaction of the people to the journey and to the traumatic events at the story’s climax. While we catch glimpses of many members of the colonizing group, three of them are the story’s main focus: Abel, the narrator who is merely a passenger on the ship since his scientific work will begin after planetfall, thus now he functions as unofficial ship’s poet and the father of the second important character, Dean, who was born on the ship and is a Down’s Syndrome child. Dean serves as the eyes of innocence viewing all that takes place around him and, as such, offers a perspective none of the other characters can offer.

The third main character is Kaz, who originally resents the presence of a defective child onboard the colonizing mission but during the story becomes Abel’s closest companion–if not deep friend–and Dean’s surrogate uncle.

Most stories of this type are primarily concerned with the mission, either the science or the plot, or with the colony, either its native culture or the one developed by the colonists. “Cri de Coeur” is instead concerned with the people doing the colonizing, how they relate and interact and deal with both the mundane tasks of travel though space and with the unexpected traumas. It is a strong, thoughtful, and highly successful story.

Blue Kansas Sky is highly recommended (assuming you can trust my pro-Bishop bias). Certainly, if you enjoy literary SF and have not read either “Superstrings” or “Cri de Coeur”, then this volume is mandatory reading.


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