Sometimes I start reading an older book, and it turns out to have QUILTBAG+ themes that no one mentioned. Over a year into doing the QUILTBAG+ Speculative Classics reviews column—a lot of spreadsheeting and gathering books later—this still keeps on happening. I’m starting to wonder if it will ever be possible to run out of eligible work to review. And I don’t mean “this book has a possibly queer couple in the background” moments—I just came across a science fiction graphic novel with an intersex main character (!), originally published in 1984 and translated to English in 1997.
A, A′ [also written as A, A Prime] is a one-volume manga by Moto Hagio, one of the groundbreaking classic creators of shōjo manga, Japanese comics aimed at teenage girls. The book has three long chapters, which were originally published in serialized form both in Japanese and in English. I will discuss the loosely connected chapters separately.
In the far future, the “unicorns” are a genetically engineered human subspecies with striking red hair, created to handle computers, analyze data, and work as astronauts. They express their emotions differently than most people, and thus are generally considered cold and aloof. They are also noticeably clumsy, and they forget to eat if they are stressed. Finally, they have different sensory sensitivities compared to baseline humans: “To her eyes even the dimmest light seems bright. She can see even infrared radiation.” (p. 30)
By the time the three stories take place, the unicorns have all but vanished, merging back into the general population. Yet from time to time, people with unicorn traits are born, similarly to other kinds of atavisms (as the text itself discusses). The chapters examine the place of these rare unicorns in a far-future setting where both science and psychic powers are important elements of the plot.
The first, eponymous chapter has the least QUILTBAG+ relevance, but it is also the one I personally found the strongest. In a self-contained story, Adelade Lee, a teenage girl with unicorn traits, works on a research base on a remote planet. When she dies in an accident, her clone body kept in storage is artificially implanted with her memories up until the moment she had left for the base, and is sent back to the planet. This is where the story begins; Adelade is struggling to form relationships with the base staff, who all knew a different version of her, but who are all strangers to her. A bittersweet romance develops between the new Adelade and a young man on base. I thought that here the speculative elements and the emotional characterization were both essential to the story, and I felt deeply for the characters.
I had more uneasy feelings about the other two chapters. The second chapter, 4/4 [Quatre-Quarts] also features a similar pairing, where one of the people is a unicorn. Mori, a teenage boy from Peru, lives in a research city on Jupiter’s moon Io. He is a participant in a research project focusing on psychic powers. He is telekinetic, but he cannot control his power and usually only manages to make a mess of his room at best. In a chance meeting, he saves Trill—a unicorn girl—from an accident. Trill is minimally verbal, and lives on the station as the adopted child of a researcher—who also uses her as a test subject. This was a rough read for me, because again I felt for the characters, but the plot developed in the direction of Trill being increasingly abused and Mori unable to help her, and—without giving away specific details—the ending also followed the templates of stories about disabled characters written by people who do not share their disabilities. In particular, intellectually and/or cognitively disabled characters often only appear in speculative fiction in order to be mistreated, and this chapter was no exception.
The third chapter, titled X + Y, is the longest, and also the one with the most overt QUILTBAG+ elements. Tacto is a teenage boy and a unicorn working with the research group “Allergy Culture” on terraforming Mars. When the group’s latest project gets approved and Tacto is given the go-ahead to move to Mars, he undergoes a thorough medical exam and finds out he’s intersex. He has XX chromosomes, and an underdeveloped uterus and ovaries inside his body. The adults in his life immediately begin pressuring him to medically transition to female, which he refuses and states he wants to continue living as male. Once on Mars, he meets Mori, who is stunned to see another unicorn after Trill…and the two of them slowly begin to fall in love.
Tacto’s intersex variation turns out to be science-fictional, and in a rather implausible sense that strained my suspension of disbelief; but in the narrative, actual present-day intersex variations like Klinefelter Syndrome are also discussed, and the difference is made clear. Further, the story veers deliberately away from intersex and trans tropes. Hagio reveals Tacto’s intersex variation in a way similar to how many intersex people also find out about themselves: in a medical context; and not by the classic fetishizing trope: forcibly disrobing him. His naked body is only shown to us on a low-resolution heatmap. That this is a very conscious subversion seems evident from a later moment where Tacto is accidentally disrobed, but we the readers see nothing, Tacto is not read as intersex by any of the people seeing him naked, and no abuse follows.
Another striking moment involves Mori telling Tacto to think for himself and assert his autonomy instead of relying on him for answers: “Tacto! This is your body we’re talking about! Think for yourself for once!” (p. 195, emphasis in the original.) That we get to hear this from a non-intersex queer male love interest is something almost unheard of in speculative fiction, even today. It also drives home that this is a relationship between two characters who are both explicitly neuroatypical—though of course the narrative doesn’t use this more recent term—but in different ways. Mori genuinely tries to make sense of Tacto’s atypical self-perception and emotional presentation, and Tacto deeply appreciates that.
I found the disability aspects of this graphic novel just as important as the gender and sex aspects. To me (an autistic person), the unicorns read as autistic, but back when Moto Hagio wrote A, A Prime, there was much less knowledge among the general public about autism. I found myself wondering if the unicorns were inspired by people the author knew who happened to be autistic. The book discusses various medical terms, but autism is never mentioned. The unicorns even show the wide range of verbal ability that autistic people have: Trill is minimally verbal, but even the extremely verbal Tacto displays atypical language use like referring to himself in third person—as some autistic people also have a tendency to do.
Mori’s telekinesis is also portrayed as a disability in some ways. He initially cannot control it at all, and it causes him major difficulties in everyday life. But Tacto and Mori are able to help each other and adapt to each other in this sense as well. Further—and this is groundbreaking for the book’s time—they are also allowed to be sexual with each other, which is still very much not the norm for disabled characters in fiction. Sex is not shown on-page, but Mori and Tacto share a bed and openly (awkwardly!) discuss their plan to have sex.
There are also queer side characters, and marriage equality is a given in the future. We also see varying levels of discrimination: gayness is accepted, but still remarked upon, while being intersex immediately elicits an oppressive response from multiple authority figures in Tacto’s life. Mori makes it clear that he’s attracted both to men and women, though the word “bisexual” is not used. Two minor characters accidentally transition to female using an experimental procedure, and one experiences dysphoria after transitioning, while the other one ends up preferring life as a woman. (Readers should be forewarned, though: this character does die a tragic death.)
The book’s translator Rachel Thorn, a tireless advocate of shōjo manga in English, is herself trans. Not having read the original, I felt that the translation was sensitive and careful, and the choice of translating this work from Hagio’s oeuvre a poignant one.
I ultimately had conflicted feelings about A, A Prime. By the end of the second chapter, I was ready to throw the book out the window due to the treatment of Trill, but by the end of the third, I knew I would hold onto my copy. The book ends on a beautiful note with Tacto and Mori, well-supported by Hagio’s graceful art; and their relationship encompasses many elements that a lot of intersex stories by non-intersex authors almost never have. But I still feel hurt—and I don’t say this lightly—that this relationship is set to develop on the narrative foundation of a minimally verbal, disabled character being abused first. I do not mind heavy themes in love stories, but I felt that this was uncalled for, even within the narrative.
In any case, A, A Prime is a fascinating and important work that should be discussed—and debated! —more often. I have witnessed a lot of sometimes extremely heated discussion of the depiction of queer men in shōjo manga written by women authors, and I haven’t even touched on that topic; I’ve only focused here on the aspects more salient for me personally as a queer intersex person who is not a man. I hope that more discussion will follow; the book is sadly out of print, but currently available used at reasonable prices.
Next time, we will cover a novel from one of science fiction’s historically best-known gender nonconforming authors, and psychic powers will again make an appearance!
Bogi Takács is a Hungarian Jewish agender trans person (e/em/eir/emself or singular they pronouns) currently living in the US with eir family and a congregation of books. Bogi writes, reviews and edits speculative fiction, and is a winner of the Lambda Literary Award and a finalist for the Hugo and Locus awards. You can find em at Bogi Reads the World, and on Twitter and Patreon as @bogiperson.