Sunday, July 13, 2014

Unicorn Jelly

"The sky was no longer blue. North-eastward it was inky black, and out of the blackness shone brightly and steadily the pale white stars. Overhead it was a deep Indian red and starless, and south-eastward it grew brighter to a glowing scarlet where, cut by the horizon, lay the huge hull of the sun, red and motionless. [...] I judged the air to be more rarefied than it is now.
[...] the red beach, save for its livid green liverworts and lichens, seemed lifeless. And now it was flecked with white. A bitter cold assailed me. There were fringes of ice along the sea margin, with drifting masses further out; but the main expanse of that salt ocean, all bloody under the eternal sunset, was still unfrozen. From the edge of the sea came a ripple and whisper. Beyond these lifeless sounds the world was silent."

from The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

It takes little to shake us out of our comfort zone. Standing on that final shore, the time traveler was faced with the unfolding of the great tale of being beyond the empire of his birth or subhuman posthumans' class struggles, beyond "gratitude and mutual tenderness" and life itself. Science fiction has been served well by such alien landscapes twisting the ground beneath our feet, even if they don't draw a crowd quite like Weeny damsels in distress. World-building is a fascinating creative endeavor.

If you were to accidentally run across the first couple dozen strips of Unicorn Jelly you couldn't be blamed for flipping to some other form of entertainment. They're a derivative few pages about a D&D slime getting pissed on by a unicorn, thereby becoming a hybrid creature, and some vague hints of an adventuring party including a witch. The drawing is anything but artistic, the panel to panel writing is disjointed and nonsensically random with some monosyllabic Japanese thrown in and there's no plot to speak of. In other words, the whole thing started as many other excellent webcomics do (and many more others a great deal less excellent) with the impulsive venture of a creative yet inexperienced author.

Regardless of some very minor improvements (smoother lines or full sentences) it goes on like that for about sixty pages, even after Chou's appearance. Even the crystal basilisk would easily fit into derivative fantasy tropes. The first hint that the story has abandoned its D&D shackles is the shatterel storm. What's shatterel, you ask? That's the point, it's new. The world-building had begun.

From there on, it's debatable whether the initial nonsense about witches, jellies, slimes and flying broomsticks shouldn't have been abandoned altogether. Much like Bun-Bun in Sluggy Freelance, Uni (the title character) is a one-shot gag run amok, with no real place in the greater story... but then again, that's partly the point. The author has quite the chip on her shoulder about certain societal issues. Each storyline is full of homosexuals, transsexuals, species transcendence, psychopathy, utilitarian ethics and various other denials of integration and homogenization. Though he breaks up the plot more than serves it, the reader is forced to simply accept Uni the bag of piss as a meta-fictional symbol for would-be transcendent misfits. Me, I'll stick with lycanthropy.

The most concise encapsulation of Unicorn Jelly's appeal is the powers of ten map (though it's spoilerish, so put it off until after you're at least halfway through the comic archive) and the other side-features show the amazing amount of detail which went into building a new universe from the atoms up: its biology, its geometry, its time, its space, its life - and death. Though about as scientific as dilithium crystals, these lessons in paraversal science reflect captivating attempts to give alien environments internal consistency.
The sequels, Pastel Defender Heliotrope and To Save Her, expand on this out into the multiverse. Pastel starts, like the original, from another half-baked notion (though it does a better job of incorporating it) while the last series is more character-centered, tying together material from the previous two into a more satisfying conclusion.

The characters are interesting enough, though in keeping with the author's obsession with shifting identity, no one character is truly one. At any one point, they are only facets of themselves. Whether this appeals to you will depend on your favorite literary styles. Here, no character is truly the focus. Growth is the key, transcendence: characters, plot, the world itself, spiraling out into a fascinating tangle of humanity integrating itself somewhat unsuccessfully into new universes.

Read it primarily as a tale not of the traveler but of those distant, dismal final shores.

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