Bishop, Michael (2000). Blue Kansas Sky. Urbana, IL: Golden Gryphon Press.

Reviewed 28 February 2001

Blue Kansas Sky (cover) This set of four novellas by the unjustly neglected Michael Bishop comes from a small press located here on the Silicon Prairie. The content is excellent, and the book's production values are better than those of most small presses (and at least equal to those of most New York commercial fiction these days), if not nearly what they should be. Golden Gryphon at least had the good sense to hire a professional designer for the interior and exterior of the book, even if its choice of printer and bindery seems to leave a bit to be desired. Unfortunately, Golden Gryphon found or hired a seasoned book-marketing professional to write the cover copy, too, which is not a point of pride: Said professional, as they virtually always do, missed the point.

A reader familiar only with the speculative fiction ghetto will read the first few pages of the first, eponymous novella and skip to the next one. A casual reading will disclose only something that looks like it came from the pages of The New Yorker (although it's much too good to be anything that rag has published in the last decade or more). The key to "Blue Kansas Sky" is its refusal to preach to the reader. Instead, this piece explores what it takes to be a hero, but requires the reader to draw all of the conclusions, rather like the shorter works of William Kennedy and John Cheever.

The remaining three novellas in this collection are, at least on the surface, much more comfortable for speculative fiction fans. "Apartheid, Superstrings, and Mordecai Thubana" functions as a link between "Blue Kansas Sky" and the other two novellas in this collection. Like "Blue Kansas Sky," "Apartheid…" takes place on Earth, in approximately the present. Like the remaining stories, there is a much more "science fictional" surface. "Cri de Coeur" takes place largely on a not-quite-generation ship on its way to Epsilon Eridani (one of the two or three nearest stars likely to contain a solar system similar to our own), while "Death and Designation Among the Asadi"—which in just about any other year would have won the Hugo and Nebula, but had the misfortune to be published in 1973 and competed against some of the best work produced in the 1970s by, on the one hand, James Tiptree, Jr., and on the other, Arthur C. Clarke and Gene Wolfe—is a classic of far-future anthropology, with more than a passing taste of Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness. "Death" later became an integral part of Bishop's excellent novel Transfigurations (4 stars) (naturally enough, out of print—hint to Golden Gryphon), which is itself not so much either the "workup" common to speculative fiction or the "wrapper" common to pretentiously literary fiction, but a skewing and expansion of perspective.

In any event, back to this book. One thing that ties these four stories together—and the reason that "Blue Kansas Sky" itself does, in the end, belong in this collection—is a common concern with miscommunication caused by lazy assumptions. This is a subject that quite easily could become a pulpit. Although "Cri de Coeur" comes uncomfortably close to the edge of that cliff toward the climax, it does veer away before there's any real danger of falling off; the other stories stay comfortably away from that crumbling edge. Technically, these stories do something in support of that theme that is done all too seldom these days: they tell—in the right places. "Showing" is not either always or inherently superior to "telling"; the third part of "Death" is an excellent example. Chaney tells us his interpretation of events, but what matters is what he does not say, and how that silence is woven into the theme. There is no silence in pure "showing"—only omission. The omitted details in a pure-showing narrative are nonetheless there: if the characters react to them, it's a sign that the narrator was hiding the ball; if they do not, the details didn't matter, which is another kind of narrative choice.

Another unifying aspect is the "false closure" at the end of each novella. Each one ends with something that, at least on its surface, looks like a traditional denouement. But it's not, because Bishop has done something very difficult (not to mention very rare): he has made the reader identify with the narrator, not with the protagonist. This leaves us in the position at the end of each novella of realizing that the story we just read was only an episode in which several characters' lives, for a time, came together. Too much short fiction subscribes to the theory that it portrays not just the most important event(s), but virtually the only meaningful event(s), in the lives of its characters. That's somewhat more excusable with novels, and perhaps with midlength works like these novellas. Although more excusable on an individual basis, it's still a sign of intellectual laziness on the part of the author.

As usual, I've managed to avoid saying much about the plot of these four excellent novellas. (As I noted in the first paragraph, the copywriter has done too much the opposite in one paragraph for each.) Even more so than usual in the books I like, the plot is secondary to the character, the theme, and the environment. It is not, as in some supposed avant garde work, completely irrelevant, because it does help drive the changes wrought in character. Nonetheless, it is not what really matters to these stories. And that is why the copywriter missed the point so badly.

For those who are wondering, I did not note the publisher's location—which is the same as mine—until after I had written the core of this review. I delayed posting for several days to confirm that there is no conflict of interest. Would that Certain Prominent Anthologists would do the same (and no, Gardner, I'm not talking about you).

Overall rating: 4 stars
These four novellas are simultaneously satisfying reading and excellent learning tools. Bishop's careful selection of narrative voice and method to fit the needs of these stories, and the needs of particular segments of these stories, is purposeful, in contrast to the default laziness of "third person observer limited" taught in virtually all writing classes and materials aimed at category fiction. For readers with little experience of contemporary fiction outside the speculative fiction ghetto, this will be very uncomfortable, but should prove rewarding.

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