I’ve been interested in reading more Moto Hagio ever since seeing some of her work in TCJ #269 and reading the great interview with her by Matt Thorn (which is now online here.) I recently managed to get a cheap copy of the out-of-print Thorn-translated Hagio volume A A’, which remains one of the few books of hers in English as far as I can tell.
Anyway, A A’ is pretty fascinating. In form, the book is a series of three related stories, all dealing with a genetically modified red-haired race of humans known as unicorns. In content, it’s a very odd hybrid of adult post-60s sci-fi (think Samuel Delaney, John Varley) and YA fiction. So there are quite sophisticated sexual themes, especially in the last story X + Y, which involves homosexuality and gender-swapping. But where Delaney or Varley would use these themes as an opportunity for more or less prurient explicitness, Hagio’s take veers towards romance rather than sex. In some ways, the closest analogy is probably Ursula K. Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness (which, not completely coincidentally, Matt Thorn himself discusses briefly here.)
But again the Le Guin connection isn’t quite right; Le Guin (in Hand and elsewhere) is very interested in world building, in putting together logical societies, and in psychological accuracy. This seems much less important to Hagio, whose characters are limned fairly quickly, and whose worlds are even less specific. In some ways, in fact (and this is the last dropped name, promise), she’s more like Philip K. Dick. Like him, her worlds don’t necessarily hold together all that well — I, at least, got the sense as I was reading her that she was basically making up the parameters as she went along (the description of how Mars is going to be terraformed, using inflatable gels, kites, and maybe dust, are teasingly, intentionally ludicrous.) Her characters are often defined by lacuna, or what isn’t there — the Unicorns as a race are oddly emotionally distant and vulnerable (prone, we learn at various times, to anorexia, clumsiness, and refusing to use first person pronouns.) And all the stories center, in one way or another, on memory loss.
Where PKD uses the spaces in his narrative to show the fragility of reality, though, Hagio is working towards something else. Character, memory, world, and reality are all secondary to, and hinged upon, emotion and, especially, on trauma. The art has a open look (not a lot of blacks or heavy lines, cartoony faces, sketchy backgrounds) and the stories are really series of semi-connected incidents rather than strong singular narratives, but beneath the breezy surface, Hagio is obsessed by pain, and, elliptically by childhood abuse. Perhaps the clearest example of the way in which Hagio simultaneously evades and highlights these issues is the unicorn characters themselves. As I mentioned, the unicorns are all emotionally distant. This is partially explained as just being the way they are; they’re kind of bio-engineered Vulcan computer geeks. At the same time, though, Hagio defines all three by discussions of childhood trauma — and the implication is that the unicorn’s emotional oddness is the result of that trauma, not of their genes. The tension is most clear in 4/4, which is build around the question of whether unicorns in general, and a child-like unicorn named Trill in particular, have emotions. Trill is being experimented on by a scientist/father-figure who seems to love her, contradictorily, because she has no emotions.
Actually, though, I think my favorite of the pieces here is the one where the connections are least explicit. The first and title story of the book, “A, A’”, is about a unicorn named Adelade Lee. Sent to a distant planet to participate in a research project, Adelade is killed in an accident. A clone, prepared for just such an eventuality, is then revived, and sent to the planet as a replacement. The clone, of course, doesn’t remember any of Addy’s friends — nor does she remember Addy’s former lover, Regg. Regg tries to reestablish a connection, but fails. He decides to leave the planet for another research station, where he is killed. Addy decides she did love him after all, and prepares to try to forge a relationship with Regg’s clone, who arrives at the planet as the story ends.
Obviously, with multiple memory losses, twins, and unrequited love up the wazoo, this is one big, gloppy soap opera. But again, lurking just beneath the surface, is a painful, never quite expressed parable about trauma, memory, and the inability to escape the past. The story opens with the cloned Addy being primed with the old Addy’s memories to the time when she first went to the planet for research. She “remembers” in particular, the moment when her pet pony died by falling into a crevice. She cries — but when she wakes up she says she doesn’t remember why. Throughout the rest of the story, Addy is locked in a round of, ostensibly, trying to remember, and, beneath that, trying to forget. Her inability to remember Regg is, narratively, the result of her being a clone; at the same time, though, it is hard not to see it as an unwillingness to remember, an inability to face her past.
The climax of the narrative comes while Regg and Addy are on the surface of the planet together. Addy ( like Pony before her) falls into a crevice, and Regg slides after her. Deep underground, they discover the old Addy’s body, frozen in ice, with a sharpened piece of swordgrass through her head. Diagetically, clearly, this is pretty silly — what’s the chances of both Addy’s falling down the same hole? Psychologically, though, falling down the same hole is exactly how trauma works. Addy has to return to the crevice; the memory she denies is always swallowing her up, and she always ends by standing, affectless, before her own pierced and frozen corpse. She can’t respond to Regg not because she’s not the same person, but because she is still frozen down there, somewhere, by a past she can’t acknowledge or access.
The end of the story is nominally happy — clone Addy and clone Regg will form a bond and make new memories together. But the image of the dead Addy, upside-down, underground (which, from various angles, makes up a shocking double-page spread) seems a lot more real than the fragile, promised love-affair. Indeed, happiness in the story is either in a sun-lit, imagined past (where Regg and Addy loved) or in a sunlit imagined future (where clone Regg and clone-Addy will love). In the present there is only a dimly understood, repeated primal scene of frigidity and despair.
Again, the fact that it’s dimly understood is part of what makes it so great. In the other stories in the volume, Hagio explains more clearly what’s wrong with her two other unicorn characters; their trauma is defined, and therefore can be overcome. But Addy’s trauma is more metaphorical; the death of her pony isn’t really what’s wrong with her; neither is the death of her former self. The sci-fi tropes obscure and misdirect the narrative core of Addy’s character. The story is about self-discovery, and its deceptive darkness comes because it isn’t possible for Addy to know herself. She can’t reclaim her trauma, or deal with it, because it isn’t hers; it’s outside her, and engulfs her. Perhaps she and Regg will find happiness, but one suspects that they may, instead, repeat the cycle of death and forgetting, occasionally changing roles, but with same predetermined end.