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Michael Bishop's Blue Kansas Sky


Blue Kansas Sky

Bishop, Michael. Urbana, IL: Golden Gryphon, 2000. Introduction by James Morrow. 263 p., hardcover, $24.95. ISBN: 0965590100.

Subtitled, "Four Short Novels of Memory, Magic, Surmise, and Estrangement," Blue Kansas Sky collects three of Bishop's previously printed speculative novellas, behind a previously unpublished piece of magic realism, the eponymous "Blue Kansas Sky." As such, the collection acts as a wonderful introduction to Bishop's work (for those unfamiliar), and a thoughtful collection for avid readers, having collected a 1973 Nebula and Hugo award short-listed piece ("Death and Designation Among the Asadi") as well as a Year's Best piece from 1995, "Cri de Coeur." Even for a thorough collector of Bishop's work, Blue Kansas Sky puts into print some essential reading.

The lead novella, "Blue Kansas Sky," is a study of pre-Vietnam rural American life, a glimpse at the funnel of lives that found themselves ending in the Vietnam conflict -- the procession of young men (and women) who lived their lives free of worry (or nearly so), only to be interrupted by the war machine of the American government's foreign relations. Simply, "Blue Kansas Sky" depicts the coming of age narrative of a slightly awkward, rather intelligent, ambitious young man in a small town, following him from his youth (age 10) to the time of departure for Vietnam (unspecified). The focus is entirely on the former phase, and his abrupt absence comes only on the last page of the novella -- a shock both for the reader and the characters. After a careful development of the plot and characters, the tragedy of the novella's conclusion makes the reality of the character's lives all the more real, and all the more tragic. But the development of the plot lies parallel to Bishop's critique of place, of geography, and its shaping of the individual, its control of the romantic imagination. While the environment is always evident (Bishop is sure to include the seemingly quotidian aspects of the weather and topography in every scene), it is when young Sonny catches hold of a passing tornado that the environment moves to the fore -- this is magic realism after all -- and Sonny has a difficult time reconciling his seeming teleportation from the roof of his family home to that of the home of his schoolboy crush: the only conclusion must be that of the tornado and his use of it -- that the dangerous environment can also be a source of magic. Transcendental ideals in place, it is finally the blue sky of Vietnam that ushers Sonny home after his death there, tragic and unsettling, assuaged by the presence of an "American" landscape, a topography that exists beyond geography.

"Apartheid, Superstrings and Mordecai Thubana," is Bishop's study of the conditions of South Africa throughout the period of institutionalized racism legislated by the white colonial Afrikan government. Bishop's place as a Southern writer is of interest: He often displays a sincere interest in the ideological control strategies employed by governments for the deprivileging (and construction) of an underclass, as well as the ethos of colonial development, but this is the most direct of his studies, laying bare the dehumanizing efforts of the Afrikan government in petty efforts of control. But these are real matters, not those of "speculation." The speculative comes into play when Garrit Myburgh, a nigh middle-aged white Afrikaner, collides with an anomalous elephant while driving late one night and is shifted into a semi-corporeal form, a "shadow matter"-existence. As an "invisible man" (and the relation to Ralph Ellison's work is obvious), Myburgh finds himself not only the subject of the dehumanizing practices of the colonial government, but also witness to the more inhuman strategies exerted by the police state upon his similarly disenfranchised new compatriots (the black travelers on a bus who can actually perceive him -- and this may simply be because of their social and not metaphysical placement). The novella's conclusion, wherein Myburgh seeks revenge for the death of his friends at the hands of the police is ambiguous, and helps to mythologize the entire narrative: If it were simply a ghost story (Myburgh considers the possibility of his death, of his being a ghost), it would be too simple. Instead, Bishop posits that anyone could become similarly disenfranchised, but that, given some sort of enlightenment, of realization, that this new ambiguous state contains power outside -- and over -- the system.

"Cri de Couer" is Bishop's exploration of the practicalities of generation ships, and follows the life of Abel Gwiazda, who, beyond his career as a geologist, is more importantly the father of young Dean, a child conceived in space, and due to cosmic radiation, born with Down's Syndrome. While it begins with an examination of "man's inhumanity to man" -- Dean is picked on by a bigoted adult -- it quickly moves to a mediation on what it means to simply be human, freed from the strictures of Earth. And maybe even from the incessant problems of Earth-bound society: The bigotry exhibited towards Dean is eventually overcome, and even the recovery from the debilitating loss of one of the fellow generation ships speaks the promise of space. Sometimes sentimental, other times wonderfully magical, "Cri de Couer" is a beautiful explication of the potentials of science -- and the potentials of humanity.

The last novella in the collection, "Death and Designation Among the Asadi," is a meditation on anthropology and the pursuit of understanding across difference. The Asadi are rare, perplexing aliens that inspire madness in those who attempt to come to terms with them, almost Lovecraftian in nature. Egan Chaney, the xenoanthropologist who attempts to "go native" among the Asadi, moves from a state of anthropological curiosity to a state of cross-cultural (and species) identification: However maddening the Asadi culture is (and it surely is for the reader inasmuch as it is for Chaney), it is alluring, especially to Chaney. His "heart of darkness" is however quite different: rather than descent into nativity, Chaney's is a descent into technology. At the heart of the Asadi culture is a strange structure, a temple built by their predecessors, of very advanced technology, and the inability to understand how such an advanced race could devolve into the Asadi is what ultimately leads to Chaney's distress. "Death and Designation" is a perfect text for exploring themes of technics and culture (from Lewis Mumford onwards to Bernard Stiegler), and more broadly, matters of postmodern anthropology.

The construction of this collection works in a very geo-conscious way -- beginning in the domestic setting of Kansas, moving to a recognizable South Africa, and from there to a human colonization attempt aboard a generation ship, and finally to an alien world -- as such, Bishop keeps the human, both the individual and community in focus, while shifting the background; humanity, and its problems, persist in spite of environment. With his careful studies of race and culture, a number of Bishop's stories could easily be included in the classroom, or into the work of scholars with an eye for such matters: He is one of the many speculative fiction writers concerned with such, but Bishop's sheer skill at characterization and magnetic prose are engaging unlike many of his peers. If there is a problem with Blue Kansas Sky it is simply that its low print run (only 4,000 copies) will find a hard time making themselves into many classrooms -- where Bishop surely deserves more attention - and onto the desks of scholars -- where, too, Bishop awaits ready incorporation into our studies.

Matthew Wolf-Meyer