I love Star Trek and Star Wars, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. People would constantly tell me that I had to like one or the other. Nonsense. I could – and do – simply like what I like.
So while some people may baulk at TJ Berry’s mixing of genres tropes between science fiction and fantasy, I love it. I mean, why not? These are entirely imaginary worlds and stories. Why not have both space ships and unicorns?!
We asked TJ why she uses speculative fiction to make social commentary, why she wanted to blend science fiction and fantasy, and her favourite female characters.
Space Unicorn Blues and Five Unicorn Flush are out now from Angry Robot books.
You cover a lot of social issues in your work. What is it about science fiction that allows for such excellent social commentary and exploration?
I think the fantastical settings of both science fiction and fantasy allow writers like me to tackle social issues without the commentary feeling too on-the-nose. If I plunge into an explanation of how colonialism and exploitation affect every aspect of a marginalized community, you’ll see people’s eyes glaze over. But if I frame that discussion as “razor-sharp fairy teeth are harvested as drill bits” and show fairies morosely gumming their food, readers can viscerally feel the effects of oppression on fairy bodies.
When I began writing the first book in this series, Space Unicorn Blues, it was simply an adventure story about unicorns in space. But when I thought more deeply about the real-world consequences of unicorn horn powering spaceships, I realized that magical creatures would likely not be revered by humans (we’re a cynical bunch), but would be hunted and held captive for their precious magical resources. Throughout history, humans have exploited each other… there’s no reason to think it would be any different with magic. This realization shifted the worldbuilding into a much darker place. I’ve tried to balance the heavy social issues with humor, because we always find humor in the most dire of circumstances.
Unicorns are generally considered the realm of fantasy, not scifi. Why did you want to transplant them into the scifi genre? How do you think scifi influences your construction of Unicorns in your universe?
I set out to create an unexpected future for humankind. Most space opera is very tech-heavy (and I love that!), but I wanted to steer the ship hard in a new direction. It started with the question: What would be the most unexpected thing you’d find in space? The answer was unicorns. From there, the idea of their horns facilitating faster-than-light travel emerged and the entire basis of humanity’s future started to crystallize.
My approach to fantasy is heavily colored by my early forays into reading the genre as a teen. I was a solid lover of horror (Stephen King) and science fiction (Asimov) when my high school friends insisted I pick of their beloved Tolkien. I bounced off his writing hard, which is no fault of his and certainly no comment on the quality of his writing. I had simply been raised as a reader with a different type of story in a wholly different prose style that was more accessible to me.
Putting unicorns into my books, is my way of recontextualizing the fantasy elements that pushed me away as a teen into a format and style that works for me. They’re still regal and magical, but they’re also downtrodden and traumatized. That’s a unicorn I can relate to.
Readers – and publishers – like to keep books in genre categories. But yours include a lot of tropes from both scifi and fantasy. How have you found people respond to this?
Interestingly, I’ve had very little negative reaction to getting my chocolate in someone else’s peanut butter. Readers today are incredibly well-versed in the existing tropes of every genre, whether they know it or not. We’re in a golden age of speculative fiction—it steeps our films, television shows, and popular books. My readers know from Harry Potter that unicorn blood is magical, they know from Ender’s Game that zero-gravity environments can be used to your advantage, and they know from Gravity that fast-moving debris in space can destroy your ship. In my writing, I pull in the elements that people “know” about the rules of science fiction and fantasy, then let them interact in weird new ways. It’s both comfortable (because I generally stick within the rules of how each element originally worked) and surprising (because I allow them to exist and mix within the same storytelling space).
How did you approach the blending of the two genres?
Because I’m more of a science fiction fan, I tended to look at each magical element and see how people would repurpose it as technology. We do this now with drug research—breaking down a powerfully potent plant that was once considered “magic” to find the single molecule that drives the reaction we want in the body. I think we’d do the same with actual magic—“harvesting” it to use in distilled ways that are far removed from the romantic fantasy of their origins.
Part of how I approach fantasy is to remove the romantic elements and leave us with the grit. Over the course of the second book, Five Unicorn Flush, the magical beings have to rediscover their softer side that humans crushed in the first story. It’s a process of remembering who they were before they powered human technology—and it’s traumatic.
Who is the ONE female character within speculative fiction you wish you had written and why?
I absolutely love Marceline from Adventure Time. She’s a powerful 1,000-year-old vampire queen, but also an angsty bixexual goth. She’s a fantastically complex character that is both terrifying and loving and probably more than a little reminiscent of me as a teen.
Pitch the Space Unicorn series to our readers! Why should we be reading it?
If you love the snarky comedy of Firefly, but also want it more gay… or you enjoy The Expanse, but think that it would also be funny to see a unicorn flail around in microgravity… or you like Guardians of the Galaxy, but want the hero to be a disabled lesbian Māori woman instead of yet another straight white dude … then these are the books for you!
TJ Berry grew up between Repulse Bay, Hong Kong and the Jersey shore. She has been a political blogger, bakery owner, and spent a disastrous two weeks working in a razor blade factory. She now writes science fiction from Seattle with considerably fewer on-the-job injuries.
TJ co-hosts the Warp Drives Podcast with her husband; they explore science fiction, fantasy, and horror via pop culture and literary lenses. It’s smart, snarky, and just a little bit saucy… just like TJ. She’s the author of Space Unicorn Blues and Five Unicorn Flush from Angry Robot. Find her on Twitter @TJaneBerry.