- Blue Kansas Sky: Four Short Novels of Memory, Magic, Surmise and Estrangement
- By Michael Bishop
- Golden Gryphon Press
- Hardcover, Nov. 2000
- 270 pages
- ISBN 0-9655901-0-0
Blue Kansas Sky is a diverse collection of four short novels from genre-bender Michael Bishop, his first collection in four years. The title story follows bright-eyed Kansas preteen Sonny Peacock. His Uncle Rory, home from prison, is shunned by the town and Sonny's widowed mother, but Sonny sees Rory as a surrogate father and secretly visits him. Meanwhile Sonny's friends hit puberty, and one attracts Sonny's girl, Maggie Vy. Rory and Sonny slowly earn respect, culminating in the night Sonny flies with a tornado to save Maggie Vy's family.
"Apartheid, Superstrings, and Mordecai Thubana" is set in the South Africa of the 1980s. Gerrit Myburgh is a typical white Pretorian until the night his Cadillac crashes on a lonely highway. Rescued by a black laborers' bus, he meets Thubana, a roofer with a talent for theoretical physics. When the bus is stopped by security police, Myburgh is alarmed to realize that only the blacks can see him. He is shadow matter, Thubana says. Thubana is hauled away; Myburgh follows. What he sees as a shadow spirit exposes the side of apartheid about which he'd always avoided thinking.
In "Cri De Coeur," Abel Gwiazda and his handicapped son travel aboard one of three massive colony arks. Irritations like Gwiazda's separation from his hibernating mate and one man's irrational antagonism toward his son pale against news that New Home is currently unsafe. The colonists must either extend their quest into unknown territory or wait for a dead world to live again.
"Death and Designation Among the Asadi" presents the notes from xenoanthropologist Egan Cheney's solo interaction with the inscrutable Asadi, who seem to live according to a ritualized mutual antipathy. Cheney strives to understand their perplexing behavior, including their chief's isolation and his apparently taboo contact with a mute individual. As Cheney struggles to remember his own humanity, events lead to a disturbing set of succession rites amid the ruins of an ancestor civilization.
A peek deep inside the outsiders
Though these four disparate short novels may seem to have little in common, falling as they do across time and space and even genres, the underlying theme of how the outsider deals with his own estrangement runs strongly through each. Even more intriguing, the self-selecting loner is often contrasted with one cast out by society.
When Maggie Vy's eye strays to Sonny's suddenly broad-shouldered friends of yore, hormonally tardy Sonny feels no less socially excluded than his ostracized ex-con uncle. But while Rory slowly builds his own path to usefulness and acceptance, Sonny withdraws, waiting on events. Gwiazda is unusual because his son has Down Syndrome (and how often do space-faring SF stories assume all "defectives" must go out the hatch?), but more so because as a parent he must stay awake while the populace hibernates. Myburgh, a member of the accepted class, joins an entire race of outsiders unwillingly; but by the end, appalled, he ejects himself from his own community. Then there's Chaney: an expatriate among humans, and a pariah among the Asadi -- another race of outcasts, but this time each individual ostracizes every other individual! All of these stimuli and responses are unique to these characters and so are deeply compelling.
This psychological insight into isolation, as applied in markedly different situations, redeems what might otherwise be near-stock ideas. Reduced to plot points, Blue Kansas Sky is a boy's coming-of-age story that flirts with squishiness. Yet another colony ship is uncertain of its new home world. An apartheid-era South African, thrown in with his unloved black compatriots, comes to understand repression. The plot outlines are irrelevant, however. The tenuous, tentative connections of these richly-drawn isolates still bound to their communities are fascinating and rewarding.
"Death and Designation Among the Asadi," reprinted for the first time in 20 years, is an inventive and absorbing evocation of a starkly alien society. It's the best example of SF xenoanthropology I've read since The Left Hand of Darkness or The Mote in God's Eye.