In Space Unicorn Blues, sci-fi writer T.J. Berry presented a world in which space travel came on the backs of fantasy creatures. Well, sort of. In the following email interview, Berry discusses the second book in this duology, Five Unicorn Flush (paperback, Kindle).
To begin, what is Five Unicorn Flush about, and how does it connect, chronologically and narratively, to the previous book, Space Unicorn Blues?
Five Unicorn Flush picks up with Jenny Perata and Gary Cobalt about six weeks after the end of the first book. You may recall that we ended the story with humanity in chaos: the Bala have disappeared and humanity is stranded. Well, it has only gotten worse since then. Jenny is desperately trying to find her wife Kaila. Gary is trying to keep tensions between the Bala from erupting into civil war — turns out, utopia isn’t quite as perfect as they’d imagined — and Cowboy Jim has decided to secure his fortune, and get revenge for his wife’s death, by going after the Bala to bring them back to the Reason. Everyone is trying to converge on one location, and the Bala on that planet are torn about how to defend themselves.
Where did you get the idea for Five Unicorn Flush, and how, if at all, did the idea change as you wrote it?
The idea for Five Unicorn Flush followed naturally from Space Unicorn Blues. Advice for writers, if you finish your story with the start of a new story, your sequel practically writes itself. At the end of the first book, Jenny has just found her wife when they’re tragically separated again. Naturally, she’s immediately goes after Kaila. And knowing Jenny’s history, the rescue is going to get worse before it gets better.
We know that Gary is incredibly relieved to be out from under human rule, but not everyone on the new Bala planet is so content. Imagine being transported to a completely new world with no technology, no resources, and no economies or countries. They’re starting from scratch: subsistence farming and hunter-gathering. Even though they’re no longer enslaved, the Bala miss the conveniences of home like septic systems, electricity, and antibiotics. Through generations of human rule, they’ve forgotten how to live independently.
In the process of writing Five Unicorn Flush, did you ever come up with any ideas that you couldn’t use because it would contradict something you did in Space Unicorn Blues?
In early drafts, I originally had Bao Zhu set up shop on the new Bala planet as a powerful and vindictive necromancer, bent on vengeance. You might even still find some online promotion with his villainy as the main conflict. I started rewriting and realized that necromancers are humans who use magic — not magical Bala themselves — which means Bao Zhu would not have been transported to the new planet. Oops! I rewrote the opening and gave Bào an entirely different role within the novel. To be honest, his story turned out to be one of my favorite parts of the new book. It’s sweet and endearing and shows us the softer side of Bao.
Also, why is the new book called Five Unicorn Flush as opposed to Five Unicorn Blues or Five Unicorn Jazz or Five Unicorn Norwegian Death Metal?
Because every book is the work of a dozen dedicated people who all weighed in on the title. Here’s a secret for you and your readers, the working filename for Five Unicorn Flush was Redshift Kilonova, which references two ships that were important to the final battle of the story. When the story changed over time, that title became less relevant. Plus, smarter marketing minds than me suggested keeping “unicorn” for consistency. I made a list of music-related unicorn titles, but what we eventually came up with, Five Unicorn Flush, is the name for a particular hand of cards that brings two people together in a delightful way.
Space Unicorn Blues was a humorous mix of space opera sci-fi and fantasy. Is that also the case with Five Unicorn Flush or are there other genre’s tropes at work in this story as well?
The sequel goes right back into the same dark and wry humor that you found in the first book. I love mixing the seriousness of space travel, where one mistake can lead to unimaginable disaster, with the irreverence of seeing fairy tale creatures in a modern setting. I mean, look how muscular centaurs are…is there any doubt that they work out constantly and are always talking about protein?
But I also brought in some horror movie tropes because anyone who knows me knows that I’m constantly fighting the urge to make every story about a haunted house or body horror. I’m a horror writer at heart and this comes through clearly in a few places. There are some pretty grueling scenes in this book — you’ve been warned.
Are there any writers or specific stories that were a big influence on Five Unicorn Flush but not on Space Unicorn Blues?
I had a lot of moving pieces to bring together in this book, so I looked to the novels of a few friends to see how they kept their action moving forward. Specifically, Adam Rakunas’ Windswept and Spencer Ellsworth’s A Red Peace. Both of their books have tons of action intertwined with a hard-driving plot. I looked to stories like theirs to help me figure out how to keep the pace of my own book moving.
How about such non-literary influences; did any movies, TV shows, or video games have a big impact on Five Unicorn Flush?
In a strange way, I think the show The Good Place had a fair bit of influence on the character of Mary. She’s an artificial intelligence installed in a ship, but Captain Jenny has turned up her belligerence and turned down her safety protocols. In many ways, she feels like a sweary and irreverent Janet. At one point, Mary is cooperating with a second ship’s A.I. and hopefully — if I did my job right — you can see the stark differences between their two personalities.
Also, I like to think of the parts of the book set on the FTL Kilonova as “twisted Star Trek.” What if you had the best ship in the star system, but it was run by stowaways and people who bribed their way into command? That’s how you end up with vodka shots in the med bay after hours.
As weird and funny as it may have been, there were some nods to issues of racism in Space Unicorn Blues. Did any of what’s going on in the world today influence what you wrote in Five Unicorn Flush?
Issues surrounding race are less overt in Five Unicorn Flush, primarily because most of the main characters spend the book outside of the repressive Reason regime. That said, we’re still on a Reason ship, so racism shows up in more subtle ways. For example, Bao Zhu bitterly recounts how he changed his name to Kevin Chen to present himself as more palatable to Reasoners. He mentions how Reason computers — which are arguably complex due to interstellar travel — hang up on the diacritics [tone marks] in his name. Deprioritizing non-Western names as “weird” or “troublesome,” then baking that choice into your computer systems is biased and Bao Zhu feels the effects of that decision firsthand.
Now, in the interview we did for Space Unicorn Blues [which you can read here], you said it was the first of two novels. Is that still the plan?
Five Unicorn Flush wraps up my foray into the world of half-unicorns on spaceships for the moment. There are more stories to be told in this universe, but for now I’m heading off to write a set of books in a completely different world. And I get to veer more deeply into horror. [rubs hands together gleefully]
With Space Unicorn Blues and Five Unicorn Flush both now available, some people might read them back-to-back. Do you think this is a good idea?
Definitely read both in a row. The story was constructed as a duology, so Five Unicorn Flush picks up where Space Unicorn Blues leaves off and ties up many of the loose ends from the first book.
When we did the previous interview for Space Unicorn Blues, there were no plans to adapt it into a movie, TV show, or video game. Is that still the case?
Still no plans for other media, but if unicorns in space piques someone’s curiosity, call my agent!
Finally, if someone enjoys Space Unicorn Blues and Five Unicorn Flush, what similar book of someone else’s would you suggest they read next? And you can’t say Becky Chambers’ novel, The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet; you said that last time.
I have to recommend Martha Wells’ All Systems Red. It’s the first in a series called The Murderbot Diaries. If you have fun reading Mary’s A.I. commentary on human quirks, then you’ll love Murderbot. And really, who couldn’t use more irreverent and darkly humorous cyborgs in their life?!