Michael Bishop's Blue Kansas Sky puzzles before it pleases. Here are four novellas published under the auspices of science fiction, and yet sometimes it's nearly impossible to find the science in the fiction.
Bishop does a fabulous thing here, though: With each tale, the scope widens, the imagination deepens and the future slowly emerges. It's as if science fiction as a genre is being born before your eyes.
"Blue Kansas Sky," the first tale here, looks back to contextualize how we look ahead. This is the story of Sonny Peacock, a boy growing up on the wrong side of the tracks who dreams of perfect days ahead, of the "blue Kansas sky" that signals to him that all shall be well.
The setting is almost anti-science fiction: a small, utterly unremarkable Kansas town near Wichita in the late 1950s and early '60s. Bishop's wry trick, though, is his use of nuclear weapons as imagery. The Cold War buildup hovers in the background, intangible but ominous. Bishop makes us see how much like science fiction—or perhaps maybe just a bad dream—it must have seemed when humanity first began to consider the threat of its own annihilation.
And Bishop's fictional Kansas town is called Van Luna, suggesting the race to the moon that the United States and Soviet Union were engaged in and also the tension between missiles built for peaceful exploration and missiles built for destruction.
Bishop moves to 1980s South Africa for "Apartheid, Superstrings, and Mordecai Thubana." The Mordecai Thubana of the title is a black man struggling against his nation's strident segregation even as he strives to understand superstring theory, a physics concept that seeks to redefine the very structure of the universe.
The "science" here remains wispy—Bishop is purposely ambiguous in his references to physics and mathematics—but the author's deconstruction of racism and violence in a dying political system is brilliant.
Bishop finally leaves Planet Earth in "Cri de Coeur," an excellent tale of interstellar travel aboard "wheelships"—huge, ringed structures that simulate gravity and employ suspended animation so that generations of colonists can leave terra firma for a new home.
After a century of travel, though, a nasty surprise awaits the would-be colonists. Bishop devises a plot twist that tests their endurance and leads to a rousing denouement involving faith, determination and the indefatigable human spirit.
The final novella, "Death and Designation Among the Asadi," moves so far beyond the human experience that it seems closer to surrealism than to science fiction. It's the most difficult story here, but also perhaps the most thought-provoking, raising haunting questions: Are human beings perhaps too adaptable, to the point that even the strangest, most repellent experiences can be synthesized into what we regard as "normal"? And who decides what is "alien" and what is "native"?
Some of these stories have been previously published, but it is here, in juxtaposition with one another, that they finally emerge as something bigger: a thorough examination of human potential and frailty, as well as a sort of "meta" science fiction that comments upon the genre even while stretching its limits.
Blue Kansas Sky should be especially appealing to readers in Missouri and Kansas, or at least those who don't mind "regionalism" being defined as an arc curving from the wheat fields of the Midwest to the star-fires of the Milky Way.
—John Mark Eberhart, The Kansas City Star, November 18, 2000