Space Unicorn Blues, by T. J. Berry, is a novel that defies genre boundaries, blending science fiction, fantasy, fairy tale and space opera together into a concoction that stands out as one of the more interesting science-fantasy novels to cross my path in recent years. The sensitivities of Becky Chambers meets a healthy dose of morally-ambiguous grit, a dysfunctionality reminiscent of Red Dwarf, and the absurdity of Douglas Adams.
Especially arresting is Berry’s world-building. The population of the galaxy being largely bala, faerie races drawn from folklore, is fun, and provides an opportunity for human self-reflection. The way that humanity responds to longer-lived, less adaptable creatures whose very bodies are exploitable resources (especially the semi-divine unicorns, whose horn is the only fuel that can power faster-than-light travel) is deeply uncomfortable. The parallels with the rise of modern-day fascism are clear, and though Berry’s treatment of this could be considered a tad black-and-white or heavy-handed, this is entirely consistent both with the folklore she draws from and, frankly, the ways we can observe mankind behaving when at its worst, and most self-obsessed. Berry is also capable at injecting lighter shades into an otherwise cynical picture, playing with fantastical and sci-fi tropes to comic effect. Singularity pie provides a memorable (if slightly stomach-churning) example of this, as do the
The greatest strength of Space Unicorn Blues, however, is the well-crafted characters. Ricky Tang, for example, is a lot of fun, all sass and wheeler-dealing, as well as being a sensitive depiction of a trans woman. She is someone who always manages to land on her feet, because she’s had to learn to do so to survive. In contrast, Cowboy Jim is, simply put, intensely unlikeable; a toxic man who has pushed everyone away with his own bitterness. His stubborn refusal to acknowledge his own failings, and to accept the differences of others, is perhaps a little overwrought, but is necessary to act as a counterpoint to the central relationship of the novel: that between Jenny and Gary Cobalt.
Jenny is a fantastic example of a disabled Maori woman who strives both to overcome her disadvantages and also, and crucially, to improve her own flaws. Hers is a journey of self-recognition and coming to accept the wrongs she has down others in the past. Gary, in contrast, is half-unicorn half-human, living a liminal existence attempting to hide his horn from those who would use him for it – as Jenny did in the past, leading to an incident that lands Gary in prison for ten years and the eternal enmity of Cowboy Jim. His release from prison at the beginning of the book, and his falling in with his former captors and enslavers for mutual benefit, forms the crux of the narrative. The journey of Jenny and Gary, both war heroes from different sides of the same conflict, former captor and captive, is a nuanced depiction of forgiveness. There is no great reconciliation, no hugging or emotional declarations. It is simply two people coming to a mutual recognition of their past wrongs and doing their best to move forward. This is given more poignancy by the backdrop of the lack of cooperation between human and bala, with the great summit of omniscient beings who have charged the two species to set aside their differences or face the consequences looming. While individuals are capable of setting aside differences, are races? Nations? Species? This is the uncomfortable question of Space Unicorn Blues, and its answer is not an easy one.
Ultimately, Space Unicorn Blues is a space opera with a great premise and a fresh new twist on the synthesis of fairy-tale fantasy and science fiction. It loses its way somewhat towards the end, in the way that great ideas often do, but this doesn’t mean that the ride is any less fun. The fact that the seeds of a sequel are shown makes the future of science-fantasy all the more exciting.