Locus Magazine Reviews

Michael Bishop's sixth collection brings together four short novels that neatly span the length of his career and, as James Morrow asserts in his introduction, the breadth of his moral universe.

The book opens with "Blue Kansas Sky", one of Bishop's finest works and worth the price of admission alone. Set in Kansas in the '50s, it is the story of Sonny Peacock, a young boy living with his widowed mother in the small town of Van Luna. Sonny's father was killed in a prison riot, and when his Uncle Rory is released on parole he is literally and figuratively consigned to the rubbish dump by the townsfolk and by Sonny's mother. Sonny, however, is willing to judge his uncle on who he is now, rather than on his past mistakes, and ultimately signposts the way to his redemption. Redemption and the struggle to understand "the other" dominate the stories collected in Blue Kansas Sky. In "Cri de Coeur", agro-geologist and poet Dr. Abel Gwiazda and his son Dean travel aboard a 21st century interstellar wheelship on course for a new home in Epsilon Eridani. Dean is afflicted with Down's Syndrome, and Abel struggles to confront the prejudices directed towards his son, as well as his own disappointment and anger over his son's condition. In World Fantasy Award nominee "Apartheid, Superstrings, and Mordecai Thubana," Bishop explores what it is to walk a mile in another man's shoes when the other man is black and living in South Africa in the 1980s. Afrikaner Myburgh crashes his car late one night, and reluctantly agrees to ride into Johannesburg on a bus taking black workers into the city. On the oddly named bus—Grim Boy's TOE-—he meets Mordecai Thubana, a man well versed in superstring theory and the injustices of apartheid. From his discussions with Thubana, and his experiences when the bus is stopped by white police officers, it becomes evident that the improbability of Myburgh's accident has rendered him invisible (this is quantum theory—of course it doesn't make sense) to white society. He is forced to bear witness to the injustices of his society, and to the vicious prejudices of the apartheid regime. "Apartheid..." is a pivotal work in Bishop's career, signalling a change from the cooler, more remote early stories to the immediacy and warmth of such major works as Brittle Innings. Blue Kansas Sky closes with "Death and Designation Among the Asadi," Bishop's fourth published story, and a Hugo and Nebula Awards finalist. The story, which was later expanded into the novel Transfigurations, looks at far-future ethnologist Egan Chaney as he struggles to understand the alien Asadi, an inscrutable species that become less understandable the more they are studied.

Bishop has matured into one of the finest writers in the genre today, and while the wait for a follow-up to his 1994 novel Brittle Innings has been frustratingly long, Blue Kansas Sky manages to serve up Bishop compact and bite-sized, with a selection that is rewarding and worthwhile, and that makes it clear just why that delay has been so frustrating.

—Jonathan Strahan, Locus, November 2000

The title story of Michael Bishop's new collection of four novellas, Blue Kansas Sky, tells the story of Sonny Peacock, a teenaged boy who lives with his mother in the small Kansas town of Van Luna in the early 1960s. His father was killed in a [prison riot following a] botched robbery scheme planned by his Uncle Rory, who survived, and who is now just getting out of prison. Despite his mother's warnings, Sonny meets up with Rory, who takes up residence at the town dump and becomes a substitute father figure to Sonny.

The story proceeds through several years as Sonny and his friends at school start growing up, their relationships changing, as does Sonny's with his uncle. Key events include a tornado that hits town and Sonny's anonymous role in rescuing the family of a girl he's admired from afar; a costume party at which he plays Superman; his secret role as the bride in a mock wedding; and the real remarriage of his mother.

There's almost nothing fantastic (or SFnal) about the story aside from one magic-realism scene—one with a tornado—and a certain sensibility. We might guess that the story is autobiographical in some or many ways, but Bishop's style is determinedly non-journalistic: there are no quotation marks for the dialogue, and Bishop frequently compounds words that are not normally joined—"twoinch," "traindepot," "foldingchairs"—as if to emphasize a skewed take on what might otherwise be taken as a memoir. Fantastic allusions do occur, in references to Superman, Flash Gordon, and the sci-fi novels one of Sonny's friends reads, and most of all in the operating metaphor of the "blue sky," which Sonny takes as a signal of the "goodness" of each day. The novella ends with a brief yet wrenching epilogue, revealing two facts about Sonny which may or may not be important in appreciating all that has gone on before. It all depends on how you see the world, the importance of sensibility and perspective, and that in a way is what fantasy is all about.

—Mark R. Kelly, Locus, February 2001


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