With the exception of Tinkles, the masquerading alien parasite from the “Total Rickall” episode of Rick & Morty, there aren’t a whole lot of unicorns in science fiction. But while writer T.J. Berry is hoping to change that with her wild and funny sci-fi fantasy novel Space Unicorn Blues (paperback, Kindle), in the following email interview she admits the book was inspired by a bout of “I’ll show him” annoyance.
To start, what is Space Unicorn Blues about?
Space Unicorn Blues opens with part-unicorn Gary Cobalt on the day of his release from prison for murder. His stone starship has been sold at auction and he’s trying to win it back from unscrupulous game hostess Ricky Tang. Thanks to his magical unicorn blood, he’s doing moderately well at Ricky’s rigged challenges, when he spots Jenny Perata — the best friend of the woman he murdered — watching from the audience in disguise. The story follows Gary and Jenny as they reluctantly cooperate to deliver a precious cargo and earn enough cash to escape the authoritarian Reason regime. Unfortunately, Jenny’s co-pilot is Cowboy Jim Bryant, the husband of the woman Gary killed, and he has other ideas about how this delivery will end.
Where did you get the idea for Space Unicorn Blues and how different did it end up being from that initial concept?
I had received several rejections on a bizarre little speculative short story when my husband kindly suggested that I try writing “normal” stories that might sell better. In a haze of annoyance, I began to write the most ridiculous book I could think of just to spite him. I thought of a space ship, then imagined the weirdest fuel that could power them: magical unicorn horn. Which meant that unicorns had to be on the ship. And if unicorns were there, it opened the door to a host of fairy tale creatures populating this world. Those creatures all have rules based in legends and technology has rules based in science; some interesting things happen at the intersection of science and magic.
The book in its final form is much darker than the original story, which was a more upbeat adventure story about fairy tale creature aliens interacting with humans. As the story evolved, I realized that humans — especially those in resource-starved generation ships — would most likely treat magic as a resource like coal or natural gas, and would have few qualms about exploiting the magical creatures for their valuable parts. This discovery shifted the entire story away from a happily ever after ending.
In Space Unicorn Blues, Jenny Perata is a disabled Maori woman. Why did you decide to have her be that as opposed to a man, able bodied, a Latina, or some combination of them, and what does her designation add to the story?
I’m answering these questions during a cross-country flight. As we entered the plane, airport employees pushed five people in wheelchairs down to the gate. The man in the seat in front of me has a prosthetic arm. There is an Asian family of three behind me with an adorable baby. Our world is diverse, in more ways than I can count. Stories of white, allocishet, able-bodied, neurotypical men have been a staple of science fiction for decades. It’s time we share stories that feature different people. Mary Robinette Kowal has a wonderful quote that says, “It’s not about adding diversity for the sake of diversity, it’s about subtracting homogeneity for the sake of realism.
I gave Jenny a Maori identity because we don’t often see indigenous people in space. Native people from many countries have not only been displaced from the past, but also erased from the future. Instead of populating the crew of the Jaggery with often-seen American, Russian, and Japanese astronauts, I wanted to create a crew of people who are underrepresented in space lore.
Space Unicorn Blues has been classified as a science fiction novel. But do you think there’s a subgenre of sci-fi, or combination of them, that describes it better?
The book is often referred to as science fantasy or a fantasy space opera. I tried hard to mingle the science-fictional and fantasy elements enough that you really can’t extract either from a description of the story. Both are integral to the functioning of the world, which may or may not be a hint about the sequel.
It’s also been called funny. Would you say the humor is jokey or satirical like Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy or is it more situational like in a John Scalzi novel?
The humor in Space Unicorn Blues is dark and situational; snarky sarcasm and off-color jokes are my mainstays. Readers are more likely to encounter a salty one-liner than a pun or ridiculous name. The book gets a bit saucy at times…you’ve been warned.
Do you consider Scalzi or Adams to be an influence on the humor in Space Unicorn Blues?
Definitely more Scalzi in the spoken humor, but there’s a touch of Adams in the absurdity of how magical items function like technology. For example, the combination of magical items that allows water in the Jaggery‘s pond to remain anchored to the floor in zero gravity is completely ridiculous.
Really, one of the biggest influences on the humor in my writing has been my family. Since I was a child, we sat around the kitchen table trying to make each other laugh and outdo one another’s humorous takes. Even the lovely man I married enjoys snarky comments and jokes that veer into unexpected observations.
So are there any writers or specific stories that had a big influence on Space Unicorn Blues but not on anything else you’ve written?
Space Unicorn Blues was the first novel I finished writing after finishing the Clarion West Writer’s Workshop in 2016. The six instructors in my year — Paul Park, Stephen Graham Jones, Elizabeth Bear, N.K. Jemisin, Sheila Williams, and Michael Swanwick — all had a huge influence on this book. The lessons that they offered have been percolating through my brain for a couple of years and this is their first chance to shine.
How about non-literary influences, such as movies, TV shows, or video games; did any of them have a big impact on Space Unicorn Blues?
You can definitely trace the lineage of Space Unicorn Blues back to Firefly. Both stories have a dark and gritty tone and a ragtag crew of outcasts on the run. I also love the relationship stories at the core of Battlestar Galactica. Every character, no matter how minor, has tremendous depth and purpose.
Earlier you mentioned a sequel. What can you tell us about it and are you think there will be more?
At the moment, this is the first of two planned books. Five Unicorn Flush, the sequel, will be out in May 2019 so readers can get explore the world of the Reason further then. But I have plenty of ideas — and even some early drafts — about different adventures in the same universe. It turns out that you can tell a lot of interesting stories in a world with both technology and magic.
We talked earlier about the movies, TV shows, and video games that influenced Space Unicorn Blues. But has there been any interesting in adapting this novel into a movie, show, or game?
I would love to see Space Unicorn Blues adapted for the screen, big or small. I think the space adventure format of the book lends itself well to the episodic nature of television. It would be amazing to see what a collection of creative people — writers, directors, actors — could bring to the story to make it their own.
And if that happened, who would you like to see them cast as Jenny and the other main characters?
My hope would be that each of the Jaggery‘s crew members are played by an actor who shares at least some of the character’s background. Maori actress Miriama Smith [The Other Side Of Heaven] would be perfect as Jenny Perata. Jin Xing [Birth Of The Dragon] or Chen Lili [The Secret] would make a great Ricky Tang. And I have always envisioned Masood Ali Khan [The Fast And The Fierce] as the epitome of Gary Cobalt.
Finally, if someone enjoys Space Unicorn Blues, what would you suggest they read next?
One of the comparisons I see most often is Becky Chambers’ novel, The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet. It features an oddball cast in space, a hefty dose of humor, as well as a lot of heart.