Genre: Science Fiction, dystopian fantasy, LGBTQ+
Age Range: 14+
When half-unicorn Gary Cobalt gets out of prison, the last person he expects to meet is Jenny Perata, the wheelchair-bound Maori army veteran who captured his ship, imprisoned him, dug out his horn, and accused him of murdering the wife of her co-pilot, Cowboy Jim. But Jenny needs Gary’s help to make a delivery…and unless Gary wants the world to end in 25 hours, he must broker an uneasy truce with his enemies. Berry balances a fast-paced plot and bawdy humour with serious questions about environmental destruction, colonialism, and human supremacy.
Analysis: Intersectional Science Fiction – Woohoo!
Space Unicorn Blues is a great example of the ways science fiction and fantasy can evolve past – or revolt against – the colonialist or Eurocentric tropes that once formed the genres. In this novel, the characters have no default race, species, gender, sexual orientation, or nationality. The human nations who harshly rule the universe are not only the United States, but Australia and India. As in Battlestar Galactica, the soldiers are not restricted by gender or race. Instead, all of humanity is complicit in the destruction and enslavement of the Bala – the term used for magical beings. As a result of this premise, the central characters (save one) have complex intersectional identities.
Gary’s father is a unicorn prince; his mother, Anjali Ramanathan, is a human peace activist. After suffering the trauma of imprisonment and incarceration, Gary struggles between his desire to save other magical creatures and the need to collaborate with an old enemy. Gary presents ye old problem of unicorn characterization…he’s usually calm, grounded, spiritually centered…and his goodness means he’s a great deal more static than the second protagonist, Jenny Perata. (Ironically, the “full-blood” unicorns, Findae and Unamip are rather more sarcastic and morally flawed than Gary.)
Jenny Perata is searching for her dryad wife, Kaila, who has been abducted by the soldiers of Reason. Jenny’s Maori identity is alternately central and peripheral to the way she moves through the world. Sometimes, being a wounded veteran who has turned against the army dominates her choices; at others, sing a funereal haka or using a patu she’s inherited are what feels most natural. Jenny is a success as a character, because nothing she does seems to be predetermined by categories of identity. Rather, her own growth is charted as she navigates between her status as a member of multiple, conflicting categories (colonizer and colonized, war hero and outlaw, bandit and wife, etc.)
Although it’s not a character per se, but Gary and Jenny’s “stoneship,” the Jaggery is an interesting way of reimagining technology as ecological symbiosis. It has trees growing in it, a lake whose fish monitor the level of gravity, and a pulsating heart kept healthy by the singing of a dwarven choir. The Jaggery is a great example of thinking beyond our current technological paradigms. If that means going beyond the plausibility of science fiction and into the realm of fantasy, oh well! We ought to have more imagination anyways when it comes to acknowledging humankind’s integration into the natural world.
The author has an obvious fondness for most of the characters, with the exception of the last central character, Cowboy Jim. It’s a little confusing. Jenny’s overt motivation for keeping Jim around is that, as a heterosexual older white American man, Jim has the ability to get Jenny’s ships out of tight situations. But he’s really terrible as a person AND as a pilot! If heterosexual older white American men still stand at the apex of power in this universe, there must be someone who is a little better…at least at flying! And even Jim’s seeming superiority should be questionable when we have Battlestar Galactica egalitarianism in the ranks of the Reason soldiers. By the end of the novel, Jim has no redeemable qualities, and the fact that his wife got eaten seems to gain him no sympathy. If Cheryl Ann was such a great person who had great taste in friends (her trope is Nice White Lady), then how are we supposed to understand her attachment to Cowboy Jim? Jim’s centrality to the plot seemed like a weakness in what is otherwise a very imaginative and probing novel.
Thus, while this book exceeds in its diverse formulations of lovable rogues, it stumbles a little in its villain.