So I finished Unicorn Jelly. (full readthrough)
It was a really interesting comic. I’m not sure whether I’d go so far as to say it’s a good story - there’s a fair bit about it that’s just yikes - but it was fascinating in the way that LessWrong is fascinating, indeed rather more so: the enormous amount of passion and thought into quite wacky ideas that shines through, the sheer weirdness of it at the best times.
It’s not exactly a coherent narrative. It began as basically a DnD comic, though the bizarre setting developed later. I don’t think JDR ever had a plan of where the narrative would take her. She describes her creative process here, and reinterpreting all the stuff about ‘muses’, she basically made it up as she went along.
Because the story is somehow already written for me inside my head by my ‘Muse’, right to the end, I do not need to think about what I am drawing. Indeed the whole thing works best if I just trust my Muse and just jump in without any thought….I just get drawing, and trust that the story will take care of itself. This is as unusual as it sounds, and I realize that…but it works, so I do things this way. It’s actually pretty fun, because it is like some kind of 'automatic cartooning’…I get to enjoy the story as it is revealed too!
and originally it was indeed a DnD comic:
I had no idea what the farg I was doing with the first Unicorn Jelly strip. At first I figured that the whole thing would be just a D&D fantasy romp. I thought it would be silly video-RPG stories about a goofy witch and her little pet. I had no idea that the guards protecting her would become so important…I named them as 'disposable’ characters after all (Redcloak -'redshirt’- and FODDERman!)…I was expecting to have them constantly being killed off and suddenly back, like Kenny from South Park.
but she started getting all sorts of worldbuildy ideas:
Then Chou showed up. And the Shatterel storm. Suddenly the complexities of the Powers of Ten map began to take on an eerie consistancy, and meaning. As time has progressed, more has been revealed, to me as well, and so I fel this wonderful sense of discovery of something that seems so 'already made’…as though I were just tapping into something neater than I could think up. I really like that feeling. I have come to like not knowing what the next panel will be until it is finished and I get to read it. The one time a whole set of strips was just shoved at me in my mind, all finished, it was boring to actually draw them…just work. The Way the Muse usually does things, I have this mix of terror and awe and wonder as I draw the strip….I haven’t a clue what is going on, but I just try to trust that it will not only work, but make sense, include foreshadowing of future events, and create a complex, multilayered story that will 'learn me somptin’ if only silly me can figure it out.
She pretty often says things like this, to the effect that she sees creating this comic as a mystical process of some kind.
The result? Is a kind of disjointed narrative - it’s often hard to tell where it’s going. Subplots will be established and then abruptly killed off (the witches growing tea for example). There’s an extended period towards the middle of the comic, before the Stormfall is revealed, where it feels like nothing is really happening, just disjointed events.
It’s a very different feeling from something like MSPA or Gunnerkrigg Court, where everything feels like it’s foreshadowing for something later, and it feels planned and structured even it actually wasn’t. UJ has callbacks to earlier events - Chou’s dad disappears for a long time after the Impalists were defeated only to suddenly return to help Makineri build a revolution, the whole subplot with Wai Wai poisoning his party guests for some reason - but mostly it’s not at all clear what’s going to happen next, and things just seem to come out of left field. Possibly with a bit more planning about what Unicorn Jelly was ultimately going to be about, it could have been more cohesive.
And then the eventual Stormfall arc is… nasty in a way the comic largely hasn’t been before. It explictly addresses the unpleasant settler colonialist overtones of the earlier portrayal of the Jellies, but the resolution is a ‘synthesis’ on entirely human terms as Chou uses pieces of poor KaiWai to mind control all the slimes. Though the scenario of the comic makes it seem better than the alternative of outright genocide by the sword, it’s a pretty grody scenario - and since the New Gryrnu civilisation ultimately expands to colonise the entire universe, it gets even more grim.
There’s very little sign of what the comic is ultimately going to be in the opening few hundred ships. At first it’s mostly aimless running about from various threats, then about halfway through turns abruptly into a story about colonialism and Chou Ex Machina.
JDR has been pretty explicit about what messages she wants you to take from the comic - she even has an incredibly patronising page on the subject of ‘understanding’ her comic. (I feel pretty strongly that artists might talk about the process of making the comic, and their intentions, but the ultimate interpretation is up to the audience. And presenting it in this way of ‘levels of understanding’ is so patronising - it’s really not that deep!)
Most of the ‘levels’ are basically restatements of the same idea in more and more longwinded ways, so let’s skip up to “Apple”. This is JDR’s message for her story (there’s another, “higher” level about epistemology but we’ll address that later):
At this level, Unicorn Jelly is the story of how a rigid and corrupt society can be changed by the unbalancing presence of nonconformists, and is also a tale of responsibility. The stranded humans of the alien Tryslmaistan universe long ago made a terrible mistake, which is leading, inevitably, to the ecological devastation, the very destruction of the entire universe they now inhabit. Running from their terrible act, the humans have constructed a terribly controlled, totalitarian society, designed for only one purpose: the survival of the human species. This goal is pursued without any concern for anything beyond it, and in the end, the plan will fail. The heroes of Unicorn Jelly are all mutants, eccentrics, outcasts and individualists. Uni, the mutant native slime that starts the whole saga, is driven by an impossible ideal of perfect love, as embodied in the symbol of a unicorn. This ideal inspires a restless and disenfranchised young girl, Lupiko, to adopt a freakishly hybridized little girl, Chou, as her daughter. Chou, changed forever by being infected and altered by alien material, turns out to be superintelligent and almost devoid of emotion. Lacking feelings, Chou could be the greatest danger, or the greatest benefit, ever known to the humans of Tryslmaistan. Because she is raised by Lupiko, and taught the value of love and compassion, her abilities are directed towards a positive direction. In the act of simply trying to survive in a rigid and narrow culture, the little family inadvertently ends up disrupting that society, which in turn leads to a chain of events that will lead to saving the universe as a whole. Unicorn Jelly can be said to be about how even the most insignificant people can sometimes change the world, and how every life is important in the scheme of things. Above all, Unicorn Jelly suggests that we are responsible for our actions in the world, and for the world we help to create.
I’m not convinced it succeeds very well at all that? A fair bit of this is just plot summary, but OK, like… he way the ‘little family’ ends up ‘disrupting their society’ is entirely down to the arbitrariness of Chou, and various convenient plot contrivances. There isn’t really much more than a very tenuous connection between the protagonists’ struggles to escape their various perils and the ultimate universe-spanning events, it just kind of drops into their laps.
And like, for a story about ‘the most insignificant people’, the whole bit where Makineri drives a revolution - presented as a mindless mob - against the Council and their Arks, forcing certain characters to have to murder people en masse? The forcible assimilation of slimes into Kays (which is at least presented as somewhat sinister), and the general miserable fates of the Jellies?
The protagonists of the comic are kind of from the start marked as special, from Uni’s special plot-driven powers to Chou’s magical science brain? Lupiko at least is maybe just an ‘ordinary person’, but her mother was a member of the Council with a library of forbidden books.
It’s standard for a fantasy story but it does make me kind of roll my eyes at this characterisation of the narrative.
I think if there is something Unicorn Jelly does seem to try very hard to do is redeeming its villains and try to complicate some of its heroes - basically presenting everyone as fundamentally good but driven to do awful things by circumstance and trauma? You see this with Yuri and Makineri for example.
Muri’s introduced as ambitious and abusive - later on she gets a tragic backstory about devotion to her sister and sex work, which is horribly heavy-handed and pretty shitty about sex work tbh, but the most important part is that she’s one of the only people who are nice to KaiWai before KaiWai joins the main cast, and this is a major redeeming aspect. Makineri, likewise, is introduced as a scheming alchemist helping Muri try to kidnap Lupiko and Chou, and he murders Muri, but later in the story he abruptly develops a revolutionary sentiment, only to just as abruptly abandon it when he decides it would be better to let the ark-ships leave in a rather awkwardly placed humour scene. His final act is to ‘heroically’ do some kind of bizarre public sex act to distract the crowd and allow the arc ships to escape.
So it’s already pretty fucked and weird, but I’m especially uncomfortable with how it plays out with Zuzux and Texto. They’re abruptly introduced to be as about as villainous as it gets: a pair of people who occupy almost all their time gleefully murdering people literally for laughs. They’re kind of foils for Yasui and Millian in that regard (Y and M are at least portrayed as mostly good guys), but also fulfil the ‘depraved gay man’ stereotype to an extreme.
But later, Z and T are somewhat arbitrarily made indispensable to the ark ship project, and this leads to this bizarre episode where Yasui ‘gives in to anger’ or osmething upon seeing Z and T and kills six children and Z before seriously injuring his husband Millian, and then slices up a huge crowd of people in order to help the airship escape. Like, it’s a huge dollop of grimdark out of nowhere comes across as an effort to make them equivalent. This is followed by the really fucking weird redemption arc for Texto, where Yasui does some acrobatic maneuvers that position him to be able to kill Texto and himself, and then makes Texto promise to be good in return for ‘winning’ and seeing Yasui die. From that point on, Texto is largely a decent guy; later on he gets ~mutated~ and has to completely cover his body and is silent right up until the end of the story. Millian (who becomes quite an awful person, proudly supporting the cruelly genocidal Plan) becomes quite protective of him, and they end up in a relationship.
The thing is I can’t make any sense of Texto as an actual person, or a symbol, or what. His entire character arc just feels weird. And I can’t forget the overtly horrible stuff he was introduced doing, and never really answers for in a meaningful way? There’s also this disability tropes thing where he basically says he has no emotions and kills people to feel something which is just such an awful narrative??
Uh, now to talk the trans side of things. I obviously read this story because JDR is trans and influential (unfortunately perhaps) in the early trans internet, and I expected it would have trans themes?
So there’s KaiWai the Vlax-transformed, future-dreaming outcast ‘conical jelly’ as the only trans woman in the strip. She is kind of a heavy-handed metaphor, and the language used to describe her is very uncomfortable as a modern trans reader. She is a kind, lovable character whose characterised by idealistic aspirations and extreme devotion to those she cares for, such as the children on the arc ship.
And ultimately? She ends up being sliced to pieces by Chou to turn the Jellies into ‘Kays’ - it’s a horrible end for a really sweet character, and really unpleasant when she’s the only trans character and (though this is walked back on) sex worker and getting murdered and cut to pieces is a thing that actually happens to trans women sex workers and I don’t even know.
I don’t know what to make of KaiWai. I would have liked to have a more diverse cast of trans woman characters apart from her because it does kind of play into the ‘trans women are hyperfeminine and kind’ thing that (if I recall) the COGIATI pushed? But I really like her and I wanted her to thrive.
Through KaiWai in particular we get the ‘alternate universes’ conceit: there is an alternate KaiWai who’s in a kind of yaoi manga pastiche, and is described as being a drag queen self-IDing as male rather than a trans woman. I’m really not sure what to read into JDR having the various alternates of KaiWai being gender-variant in different ways?
KaiWai is the only trans woman, but late in the strip we learn that the recurring character, the spymaster posing as toymaker Wai Wai, is a trans dude, and the Gryrnese culture is violently transphobic to an extreme even worse than our world in that child murder is legalised for trans kids. This is horrible, and I can only assume JDR was working through some tough shit when she put it in the comic. I don’t know what to make of it, really; at least Wai Wai gets a happy ending ultimately?
That’s my feelings about the side characters; what about the main cast, Uni, Lupiko and Chou?
JDR had this to say about the central cast:
The character of Uni has been with me a long time, and is my personal mascot symbol. Uni is a representation of my soul. The little witch Lupiko is my humanity. Chou is my intellect and reason. Basically, everything in the strip is some sort of projection of some cross-section of my own experience and life.
So in some ways they’re metaphors more than people: thus Lupiko is compassionate but also very passive, while Chou talks with the flat affect and overly formal language of TV ‘android’ characters like Commander Data.
The story of Unicorn Jelly is kind of a ‘science wins’ sort of story: ultimately what saves humanity from the existential risk created by the technology of Myrmil and the structure of their universe is Chou uniting everyone into a scientific culture and developing technology that allows them to survive in ark-ships. Chou wins because she’s clever (read: the plot is on her side, her plans work), and per the above interpretation, because of Lupiko is a good mother to her and teaches her love and compassion, she uses her powers for good and saves humanity.
Though I don’t think JDR’s transhumanism has much to do with Yudkowsky and LessWrong etc. (both predating it and being rather different aesthetically and priorities-wise) it’s hard not to see Chou as basically being a Friendly AI of the kind expounded on LessWrong. Chou can achieve basically anything because she’s hyper-smart because crystals something something, and humanity created a ‘good Chou’ and hence were saved rather than destroyed.
Like ‘friendly AI’, I find this a pretty silly and potentially unpleasant. A lot of transhumanist and libertarian-popular fiction (e.g. The Cold Equations) seems to come around to this idea of a scenario where someone has to do something really awful for The Greater Good. And who is qualified to make that choice? Chou, the Friendly AI, does something awful: cutting up KaiWai (voluntarily, but still) and forcibly converting all the Jellies on the planet into willing, identical slaves (the Kays). This is born out in the narrative: by doing this awful thing, Chou saves everyone.
I’m really uncomfortable with these narratives that are carefully constrained to produce a Trolley Problem-like decision for an individual actor; the individual actor is placed in a position where they have to decide what’s best for everyone, and they make the Tough Decision that nobody else can.
It’s a favourite of videogames too - look at all the RPGs promising ‘choice and consequence’ where you are an arbiter for all kinds of scenarios.
There is no room in this for collective decision making, and agency is always ruled over by necessity. These stories seem to fetishise being the Great Decision Maker, doing what’s ultimately right even if those involved don’t realise it.
I suppose, while we’re drawing comparisons around the place, I am thinking of Vriska, the self-styled puppetmaster who, though largely apathetic about the lives of others, abuses Tavros while insisting that she’s somehow helping him, and ultimately kills him. Vriska’s a complicated character and a lot of the stuff she does is because she wants to be part of the story and live up to the dramatic life of her ancestor, but this idea that she knows best and is making hard decisions that others aren’t tough enough to make comes through.
Vriska’s one of my favourite characters but that’s because she is so obviously full of it; by contrast Chou is never painted as anything other than heroic; the rebels against her rule may have some justified concerns but ultimately they’re portrayed as being allied with the genocidal military dictator, and when Chou steps down, we’re assured that she’s still in charge of the puppet dictator.
I feel like this idea of being the smart one who knows best and can make the tough decisions is such an incredibly dangerous narrative to believe in, and Chou’s enslavement of the Jellese people is not the answer to the colonialism that it’s presented as and kind of relies on the Jellese people always being portrayed as pathetic and helpless (a constant from the very start), fit only to be exploited by their human masters. (This is tied in to the steady state universe thing, but in a way that’s kind of arbitrary and needless.) The Jellies fail to resist the humans in any way whatsoever until Chou takes over; there is mostly no solidarity between humans and Jellies, with those who silently aim for peace being enslaved and marked for execution by the military faction until Chou arrives to rescue them.
Looking back earlier in the story, Chou’s basically a cross of different disability narratives. You have flat-affect can’t-understand-emotion Chou, and the Chou whose head-crystals are cracked, causing her to be a nonverbal child; when the crystals repair themselves and flat-affect-Chou comes back to replace the childlike Chou, her mother and friend both grieve her (though ultimately reconcile with the Chou). I don’t feel like I know how to talk about what this is all supposed to imply, what the whole Chou-as-neurodivergent-child story is saying.
That’s a lot about Chou - what about Lupiko? Lupiko is there throughout the story (and the story ends with Chou dying while reminiscing about Lupiko’s death) but she has relatively little impact on the course of the plot. She’s compassionate and in many ways childlike (for much of the story, although she is an independent worker, she has not had puberty as there’s this bafflingly unnecessary idea that humans in Tryslmaistan have delayed puberties as part of their extended lifespans). Her main influence is I guess looking after people: she raises Chou as her own daughter for quite a long time, looks after Uni (and prevents Uni from being killed by Millian and Yasui at the start). A lot of the story, though, is Lupiko being saved or manipulated by other characters, many of whom consider her naive. A fair bit of the story is Lupiko getting into predicaments and being saved by one thing or another.
Towards the end of the story, after the rebellion is crushed and she is temporarily enslaved, she has quite a small role. She has a brief romantic relationship with Thilia that I feel is really barely explored at all, and influences Thilia (though Chou perhaps had a larger part) to be sympathetic to the Jellies and rebel against the Plan, but this ultimately doesn’t go anywhere.
Once Chou takes over, Lupiko spends the rest of her life hoping for Uni to return; ultimately Uni never does this ends in both Lupiko and Chou having an ambiguous religious vision before they die in circumstantial simultaneity (thanks Homestuck).
I guess that’s a segue into the religion aspect of the whole thing. This is what JDR considers the deepest interpretation she has to offer of UJ (the next level is ‘but I support your own interpretations’):
An advanced appreciation of Unicorn Jelly takes all the other levels into consideration, and adds to it an understanding that the story also explores the nature of how humans understand the world. Unicorn Jelly uses a metaphor-laced saga of adventure to explore how people construct reality…either as a collection of facts, or as a body of arbitrary beliefs, and how each way of seeing the world has specific uses and failings. Unicorn Jelly is a subversive work, in that it suggests that in order to avert catastrophe, the individual must define themselves independently, developing a unique and constantly growing identity and morality, flexible enough to adapt to change, but steadfast enough to make for reliable and trustworthy social interaction. Unicorn Jelly denounces the commonality of the rote-learning method of ethical development, as well as any act of accepting any one worldview as Absolute. Against the backdrop of a dying universe, a rigid and self-serving society, and the plight of the death of all living things, a handful of individualists and nonconformists succeed in becoming the salvation of the cosmos; Not because they intend to do so, or even imagine that they know how to do so, but instead essentially by merely existing. Unicorn Jelly promotes the importance of embracing diversity by demonstrating how the mere presence of eccentricity or difference can act as a positive, healing, and constructive element in the world.
First of all can I say: *wanker hand motion* (pot, kettle, etc. I realise)
So this is what Unicorn Jelly does: the different ways of understanding the world are represented by the Alchemists and Witches, who together divvy up all labour in the society of Gryrnu. Both ‘factions’ are actually tools of control used by the ruling Council, and though the Alchemists are nominally responsible for research, both their belief systems are ultimately dogmatic. While the conflict between these factions was what destroyed the original worldplate of Myrmil, the conflict is now largely theatre orchestrated by the Council.
There is a more standard spiritual aspect in Lupiko’s belief in the Holy Unicorn, and struggles with that belief. While Uni is introduced as a Slime that was pissed in by a Unicorn, that is fairly swiftly given an ambiguous retcon as possibly a vision induced by a magic religion plant. Though early on magic is unambiguously real, it’s soon changed so that many characters wrestle with the question of ‘does Magick/The Holy Unicorn really exist’.
I think if it says anything about this it presents the religious belief as a powerful motivating force regardless of whether it’s true. Uni’s devotion to the Holy Unicorn is emphasised at character-defining moments; ultimately when Chou rules, Uni mysteriously disappears and Lupiko spends the rest of her life trying to bring Uni back.
Chou, on the other hand, mostly does not ascribe any religious significance to Uni, and pushes ‘scientific’ explanations that initially fall rather flat in a universe where spells are well-established, but make more sense as the alt-physics is enforced. At the end as she breaks down into memories of her life and the people she’s left behind, she at last also receives a vision of the Unicorn.
I’m not religious, and I’m not good with religious metaphors. I’ll leave that for someone else to untangle, I guess. It does seem quite Christian in its approach, but what do I know honestly?
So I’ve complained a lot… what did I like about Unicorn Jelly?
The setting is easily the best part. The amount of effort put into exploring the details of the constructed physics, and in particular all the weird wildlife designed for the setting, is absolutely wonderful to encounter. I found myself most looking forward to the expositionary side strips detailing some new aspect of the world.
I like that the plot uses the weird setting so thoroughly, that it could hardly make sense without it. I’m not sure what metaphorical purpose a steady-state universe filled with triangular platforms in a Sierpinski gasket lattice is, but it’s incredibly inventive in a way most ‘worldbuilding’ exercises totally fail to be.
The alt-biology is some of my favourite parts: to go back to the conversation with @bloodthreadsaltglassandtears I posted at the beginning, the ‘crystal dodo’ described here and portrayed here is one of the best parts:
On every Worldplate there are exactly 303 of these enigmatic creatures. Existing only among the rubbery, crystalloid Dodofruit Domes upon which they feed, the Crystal Dodo embodies the very nature of the Tryslmaistan cosmos. The Crystal Dodo has no eyes, and only one mouth, located on the underside of the central body cylinder. The mouth is exactly sized to be able to eat the topmost 'fruit’ of the creature upon which the animal feeds. A Crystal Dodo is biologically immortal, and never ages, and even more intriguingly, never reproduces. The number of these creatures in the entire cosmos is finite, and should one be lost, the loss is believed permanent. The Crystal Dodo spends eternity mechanically walking a complicated, cyclic path, about the field of Dodofruit Domes to which it is stationed. The curve of its body exactly matches the shape of the Dodofruit, and it will pause, briefly, to devour the fruit which grows on the top of the Dodofruit, the only food it will ever eat. Because the Tryslmaistan cosmos is normally devoid of wind, or of any significant change, the Dodo can blindly follow its eternal, exacting path without interference or alteration of its environment, even the slightest of which would mean the creature’s extinction. All native life forms in Tryslmaistan instinctively, and mysteriously, avoid the Crystal Dodo, even the largest predators. No one knows why, since the Dodo has no ability to protect itself, or indeed to even perceive the world at all. In effect, the Crystal Dodo is a living machine, that endlessly carries out a single behavior…walk, eat, walk, forever.
In the comic it’s used as a metaphor: seeing a Crystal Dodo get stuck on a piece of debris that interrupted its steady-state world inspires Thilia to consider that endlessly following the Plan of Myrmil is hopeless.
But yeah, I love that shit. I’m even willing to read JDR’s extensive collection of questions and answers on random details of the world, even though her understanding of science is kind of… eh…
All in all… Unicorn Jelly was an interesting comic; I’m not sure if I’d call it a good comic, but it’s one I’m glad I took the time to read.
I don’t really know what else to say.