Blue Kansas Sky (Golden Gryphon Press, $24.95, with an incisive introduction by James Morrow) collects four novellas by Michael Bishop that span most of this under-regarded writer's career. Bishop's fiction is done in close-up rather than splashy widescreen, focusing on personal predicaments that reflect larger concerns, infusing fundamental sf tropes with a strong and highly literate humanistic sensibility. Although set in wildly disparate places—a mid-20th-century Mid-western small town; apartheid South Africa; a colony starship; an alien planet—all four demonstrate an enviable ability to inhabit very different skins.
Of the two stories most strongly identified with conventional sf, the earliest piece, "Death and Designation Among the Asadi" (later expanded into Bishop's second novel, Transfigurations), is the stronger. The story of an anthropologist struggling to prove that an apparently primitive alien race is in fact the remnant of a highly technological society deploys the "soft" science of ethnography with the scrupulous rigour of the best hard sf, yet the close of the story is notable for its refusal to opt for easy explanations for the behaviour of either the aliens or the anthropologist. In "Cri de Coeur," set on a colony starship nearing its destination, there's an affecting portrait of a father struggling to raise his Down's Syndrome son, but the contrast of the warm human world and the inhuman stochastic cosmos is a little too neat, and the prejudiced villain, too quickly converted, doesn't convince; Bishop's villains are stronger for being off-stage, as with the anthropologist's rival in "Death and Designation Among the Asadi."
There are no easy lessons, though, in either "Apartheid, Superstrings and Mordecai Thubana" or the coming-of-age story which lends the collection its title. The former is a tough-minded parable in which a middle-class white man who has been rendered invisible to his own kind becomes a witness to the human cost of apartheid South Africa. By turns funny and excoriating, the story brilliantly sustains its central conceit of tangling personal politics with the search by physicists for a Theory of Everything, and dissects the absurdity and human cost of apartheid with chilling effect.
The eponymous "Blue Kansas Sky," previously unpublished, brilliantly evokes its rural Mid-western setting, intertwining the coming-of-age of young Sonny Peacock with the story of how an ex-convict, Sonny's uncle, Rory, makes himself a place in his community. Only Sonny sees his uncle —sees his human worth—with a clear unprejudiced eye, and Rory repays this with a crucial moment of trust at a turning point in Sonny's life. This limpid and unsentimental story, with its moving epiphanal gracenote, unfolds without recourse to any fantasy (except, possibly, a single moment of flight), yet characterizes Bishop's inclusive impulse, his unjudgmental exposition of human weaknesses, and his celebration of human strengths.
—Paul J. McAuley, Interzone, April 2001