by Peter Wright

Since its publication in 1972, The Fifth Head of Cerberus, Gene Wolfe’s collection of three inter-linked novellas, has earned a reputation for being the author’s most perplexing single volume. Such a reputation is entirely justified since ambiguity is the watchword to the text. More significantly, it is also an organising principle of form, a means of confounding interpretation, and a fundamental theme associated with Wolfe’s defining authorial obsessions: the subjectivity of perception, the unreliability of memory, and the nature of identity. To draw attention to the presence of equivocation in The Fifth Head of Cerberus is hardly original as every critic and reviewer to approach the text has cited its influence as a source of their own puzzlement, their sense of inadequacy and, at times, their despair. ‘Hints, hints, damnable hints and clues! That’s all there is in Gene Wolfe’s stories: little pieces of the jigsaw and one is never quite sure that there is a pattern to the jigsaw’, declares Bruce Gillespie, making no attempt to disguise his exasperation at his subject’s abstruseness. 1 However, few critics have recognised that the introduction of ambiguity in The Fifth Head of Cerberus has a political purpose engaged directly with colonial and postcolonial situations and concerns.

Joan Gordon, for example, observes how the three novellas deploy ‘science fiction models, such as aliens and clones, to explore thematic issues of identity and humanity, and it uses ambiguity and lack of resolution to express the complexity of those ambiguous and unresolvable themes.’ 2 She sees Wolfe’s treatment of his subject matter as largely philosophical rather than political, exploring ‘questions raised by.abstract and universal problems.’ 3 Unfortunately, by approaching the novellas in this way, she fails to apprehend that the themes she identifies, ‘humanity and humaneness, identity, and memory’, 4 are explored in a postcolonial setting through key postcolonial concepts, including mimicry, hybridity and binarism.

In ‘Lost Peoples: A Review of The Fifth Head of Cerberus‘, which appeared in Vector in 1973, Pamela Sargent is more perspicacious. Sargent recognises from the outset that Wolfe’s novellas are political as well as philosophical, perceiving their colonial focus as indicative of their ‘plea for understanding those whose cultures are unlike our own.’ 5 Where Gordon mentions the association between the Australian and the Annese aborigines only in relation to Wolfe’s borrowing of ideas regarding the Dreamtime – ‘a period both very long ago and present now in the dream world, which explains the world and affects it’ 6 – Sargent understands very clearly that Wolfe’s focus is on the relationship between the coloniser and the colonised.

Disappointingly, it took twelve years for another critic to capitalise on Sargent’s reading and readdress the political dimensions of the text. Albert Wendland’s Science, Myth, and the Fictional Creation of Alien Worlds (1985) treats The Fifth Head of Cerberus as a narrative raising ‘questions over identity’ and ‘personal morality’ and, more significantly perhaps, concerning ‘methods of government’ which are ‘complex and impressive.’ 7 Wendland’s argument not only focuses on ‘the reversed outlook of object [aborigine] onto subject [coloniser].but also the complicated interaction of object and subject, and the inability to untangle the two’ that Wolfe effects through his carefully balanced deployment of ambiguity. Importantly, Wendland recognises that ‘such ambiguity not only questions the certainty of most SF conclusions (the defining of the universe by the SF human explorers, the determination of the object by the subject), but also the whole concept of certainty itself, especially the assumed, self-contained and separate integrity of individual subjects.’ 8 Although Wendland does not undertake a consistent postcolonial reading, he is aware that Wolfe’s examination of these admittedly ‘abstract matters’ is contextualised by setting – Sainte Croix and Sainte Anne are both Earth colonies – and by Wolfe’s treatment of the complex interaction between human colonist and aborigine. ‘The new regime’s domination is so strong that the old race, in order to survive must imitate the ways of the new rulers, become like them’, Wendland remarks, associating implicitly the physical mimicry of the Annese with the cultural mimicry found amongst many colonised peoples. 9 Despite the pertinence of this observation, Wendland remains unwilling to apply a postcolonial critique to a text so clearly amenable to such discourse. Hence, there is a need to reconsider the narrative in the light of postcolonial theories in order to illuminate the possible purposes and consequences of Wolfe’s elaborate and mesmerising textual puzzle. However, even at this stage it is important to understand that the existence of the puzzle is more significant that its solution, since the puzzle is where the political arguments of the novel can be found.

The ambiguity characterising The Fifth Head of Cerberus is associated with one major theme: the nature of identity. Although the focus of the novellas is individual identity: what is the nature of a clone in ‘The Fifth Head of Cerberus’; how can identical twins – natural clones – distinguish themselves in ‘”A Story” by John V. Marsch’; and how can John V. Marsch/Victor Trenchard prove his identity and purpose to the authorities on Sainte Croix in ‘V.R.T.’, there is a more essential question underpinning the narratives: who is human? This question arises as a consequence of the uncertain fate of the Annese aborigines, who may have been shape-changers capable, as Veil’s Hypothesis suggests, of imitating, both physically and psychologically, the original French colonists, whom they killed and replaced, without even remembering their actions. Through this possibility, Wolfe draws attention to the likely psychological and cultural outcomes of contact between white human colonists and an aboriginal people, through the metaphor of the amnesiac shapeshifter, an individual capable of forgetting its own near-perfect mimicry.

The concept of mimicry is essential to postcolonial theory. The term is used to describe the ambivalent relationship between coloniser and colonised. It occurs when colonial discourse and ideology encourages the colonised subject to adopt the coloniser’s cultural habits, assumptions, institutions and values, resulting in a copy – often blurred – of the coloniser’s traits. 10 Since it is science fiction, The Fifth Head of Cerberus has the capacity to address the consequences of mimicry more starkly than mimetic or realist fiction.

Wolfe’s attitude to individual mimicry and, by extension, cultural mimicry, is a critical one. By using the character of Number Five, a clone by nature and nurture of his great grandfather, Wolfe suggests how ideologically enforced mimicry is self-defeating. Although he describes the act of cloning as ‘anti-evolutionary’ in its preservation and perpetuation of static aggregations of genes, it seems likely that he is also critiquing those opposed to conventional reproduction and, again by extension, miscegenation. Through the interaction of Mr Million, Number Five’s father, and Number Five who are, after all, one and the same person, Wolfe appears to be advocating hybridity, diversity, and cultural exchange by showing the stifled and stifling stasis that opposes it. In many ways Maison du Chien, 666 Saltimbanque, is a rambling metaphor for cultural isolationism, on the one hand, and imperialism on the other since the act of cloning and the process of hypnopaedia are symbolic representations of colonial occupation and re-education.

Wolfe develops his condemnation of mimicry through Veil’s Hypothesis which, in the text, is ironically discredited by the ‘veiled’ woman – Aunt Jeannine – who proposed it. She suggests that it arose as a result of Veil’s desire to find ‘a dramatic explanation for the cruelty and irrationality he sees around him.’ 11 However, there is irony here, too, since, if the aborigines imitated humans, then the cruelty they (re-)enact in the place of the human is human cruelty. Nowhere is this more apparent than in ‘”A Story” by John V. Marsch’, where aborigine-mimics – Eastwind’s people – sacrifice members of Sandwalker’s tribe, who are themselves mimicking humans. Whatever way the reader considers Aunt Jeannine’s rebuttal of Veil’s theory, he or she must concede that Wolfe is drawing attention both to human ‘cruelty and irrationality’ and to the corruption of an alien culture compelled by human interference and their power of mimicry to re-enact it.

Significantly, postcolonial theorists have seen mimicry as bordering on mockery, ‘since it can appear to parody whatever it mimics. Mimicry therefore locates a crack in the certainty of colonial dominance, an uncertainty in its control of the behaviour of the colonised.’ 12 This is precisely what the shapeshifters of Sainte Anne effect: a mockery of white, Western colonial authority, which can be imitated, replicated and perpetuated by a pre-Dendritic culture any coloniser would term primitive in its full pejorative sense.

Homi Bhabha sees the simulation of the colonising culture’s behaviour, practices and values as ‘resemblance and menace’, 13 identifying how contact with a culture capable of mimicry can lead to the destruction of the coloniser, either literally in terms of its authority, or more ideologically in the sense of its valued superior self-image. This is the focus of ‘V. R.T.’, where Victor Trenchard mimics and replaces John V. Marsch, becoming both a better anthropologist and a man more sensitive to his environment. This becomes obvious when Marsch’s expedition on Sainte Anne is read in contrast with Marsch-Trenchard’s second appearance at 666 Saltimbanque. ‘An anthropologist is particularly equipped to make himself at home in any culture – even in so strange a one as this family has constructed about itself,’ Marsch-Trenchard explains to Number Five’s older self, drawing attention to an effective anthropologist’s ability to be a cultural chameleon. 14 Later, in ‘V.R.T’, parts of which are set chronologically earlier than this statement, the reader sees Marsch setting off into the Annese wilderness reminiscing about pith-helmeted Victorian explorers and approaching the native fauna with all the professionalism of a great white hunter. Marsch is clearly not ‘equipped to make himself at home in any culture’; Marsch-Trenchard is, as evidenced by his behaviour on Sainte Anne and his capacity to communicate in a number of ways whilst in prison on Sainte Croix. Hence, the biological chameleon becomes a cultural chameleon; the shapeshifter an ideal anthropologist, an individual possessing the intelligence and insight to understand cultures alien to himself. Accordingly, the menace embodied by Marsch-Trenchard takes the form of his ability to outperform the colonial figure – Marsch – at every level. His ‘development’ as a character is a consequence, then, not of his mimicry, but of an increasing hybridity, a furthering of his own racial heterogeneity.

When Marsch first meets Trenchard he is the offspring of an Annese mother and a human father. Where Trenchard’s mother is intelligent and sensitive to the importance of her son’s Annese heritage, his father, an inveterate wastrel, has little to teach his son but how to beg. Marsch, on the other hand, is an educated, if unsavoury, product of Earth’s culture. Marsch-Trenchard’s later hybrid status, the product of an educated but insensate human and a culturally-sympathetic Annese, results in a double vision which disrupts the authority of the coloniser and emphasises the flaws in the binary thinking characteristic of colonial discourse.

Like mimicry, hybridity is a central – if disputed – concept in postcolonial theory and must be approached with some caution. Marsch-Trenchard’s hybridity is not the result of ideological imposition but the absorption and synthesis of two cultural perspectives, two forms of knowledge, two patterns of behaviour, which leads to a new and altogether different perspective. In many ways, Marsch-Trenchard’s hybridity is both an acceptance and a rejection of the characteristics of the two cultures that inform him. Whilst it can be argued that his assumption of Marsch’s appearance, mode of dress and profession indicates the aborigine’s capitulation to the ways of the coloniser, it is also equally true to say that Trenchard’s aborigine heritage is preserved, restructuring Marsch’s psyche until he becomes, at last, a true anthropologist, someone capable of making ‘himself at home in any culture’ without influencing or interfering with that culture. The final image of Marsch-Trenchard, incarcerated, analysed, and disbelieved, for all its negativity is, in one sense at least, positive. Apolitical and powerless in a world where politics and power are shown as corrupt and corrupting, he exists without influence, a hybrid capable of detached irony and thoughtful reflection; a representation of the isolated intellectual Wolfe favours throughout much of his fiction. This strangely positive vision of Marsch-Trenchard is tempered, though, by the fact that his inhuman incarceration has – ironically – dehumanised him. When a fellow prisoner is beaten, he realises that the man means ‘nothing’ to him. Sadly, he has acquired a very human coldness together with his heightened understanding of culture.

Marsch-Trenchard’s hybridity and the reputed ability of the Annese to change their shape are the two main devices Wolfe employs in his assault on authenticity. The proliferation of fake tools and artefacts found in The Fifth Head of Cerberus are emblematic of how Wolfe destabilises the reader’s notion of who is, and who is not, authentically human. The most problematic artefact is ‘”A Story” by John V. Marsch’. Who produces this text? Is it Marsch or Marsch-Trenchard? If it is Marsch, then it becomes another piece of colonial fakery, the white interpretation of a barely comprehended alien culture. If it is Marsch-Trenchard then it may be an authentic myth retold, passed down the generations for two centuries by a culture with an oral tradition. As the reader vacillates between each possibility, the theme of authenticity is dynamically re-emphasised. Ironically, this narrative is the contextualising document of the collection, whose authenticity can be validated from the clues Wolfe weaves into the text. Importantly, the reader can determine that the author of the story is Marsch-Trenchard (if s/he has noted Marsch-Trenchard’s contempt for ‘secondhand information, fraud and pure imagination’ 15 and his resolution to produce ‘a novel [which] would only confuse’ his case 16. Although he resolves to destroy the work, it seems likely that the manuscript was confiscated before it could be burned and is reprinted as ‘”A Story” by John V. Marsch’ from the collection of papers described in ‘V.R.T.’). Identifying the author, and recognising the authority of the document only serves to illustrate, however, that those believing themselves to be authentically human are, in fact, amnesiac aborigines, populating both Sainte Anne and Sainte Croix as near-perfect mimics rather than hybrids. Although subtle, Wolfe’s clues lead the cautious and reflective reader to that inevitable conclusion. The reader begins to see the irony of the situation on the twin planets, where the difficulty of apprehending the authentically human is compounded further by the absence of a coherent discourse that constitutes a reality for both Sainte Anne and Sainte Croix.

The two worlds exist in a colonial system lacking a colonial discourse. In most colonial situations, the colonial discourse structures the reality for coloniser and colonised by establishing a complex of codes and practices that organise colonial relationships. It assumes the superiority of the coloniser’s culture, history, language, political structures and social conventions and imposes that vision on the colonised through colonial government and ideology. Whilst there is evidence of a colonial hierarchy between the French and the later colonists at all levels of society on Sainte Anne, such is not the case on Sainte Croix. Here, although the government preserves intraracial slavery, it integrated the French colonists into the colonial administration – in a sense it was a hybrid government. This integration is, perhaps, emblematic of the French colonists’ assimilation by the Annese, providing Veil’s Hypothesis is accurate. More important, however, is the lack of a colonial discourse existing between the Annese and the human colonisers. Throughout the novellas, the possibility of a colonial discourse is rendered impossible because no one (except perhaps the reader) can be certain whether the Annese are extinct or living on by playing out their unwitting, masked existence as the descendants of the French on Saint Anne and Sainte Croix.

This is not to say that various characters do not try to construct a colonial discourse. David, Number Five’s son-come-brother, remarks how it is imperative to see the aborigines as human because, ‘If they were alive it would be dangerous to let them be human because they would ask for things, but with them dead it makes it more interesting if they were, and the settlers killed them all.’ 17 In other words, if the aborigines are believed to be extinct, it is safe to consider them as human. However, if they are deemed to be still extant, to advocate their humanity would be to admit they would ‘ask for things’, that is be humanly materialistic, and demand a basic level of human rights. We see this attitude repeated by East Wind in his treatment of the Shadow Children, by Mrs. Blount and Dr. Hagsmith, who see the Annese as animals. 18

Nevertheless, because of the aborigines’ ambiguous status – they are, at one time or another perceived as animals, as humans, and as mimics, the binarism that sustains a colonial discourse is impossible to maintain, resulting in the welcome collapse of a coherent racist ideology. All of the binary opposites common to colonialism are denied by Marsch-Trenchard’s character, which leads to a corresponding denial of a stable, ideologically constructed reality. For example, the binary pairings of coloniser/ colonised, civilised/primitive, advanced/retarded, human/bestial, teacher/pupil, parent/child and doctor/patient are all undermined, deconstructing notions of difference and of fixed, stable identity.

It appears, then, that Wolfe is dismantling conventional modes of Western imperial thought in favour of a cultural and racial uncertainty designed to provoke the reader into reflecting on how contemporary ideologies structure both the world and our perceptions of that world. The puzzle he sets us to solve reminds us that we are constantly looking for modes and means of distinction, of separating out ‘them’ from ‘us’ in order for us to define ourselves in opposition. In The Fifth Head of Cerberus, Wolfe’s treatment of mimicry, hybridity, binarism and colonial discourse defeats that quest, leading the reader ultimately to understand that there is no ‘them’ to be found; ‘they’ have become ‘us’ and ‘we’, in turn, have become ‘them’. Their cruelty is our cruelty; their repressive regimes are our repressive regimes; their biological experiments, their constant shifts in employment, and their plastic surgery are desperate and tragic attempts to recapture what their contact with humans has deprived them of – the knowledge or memory of their capacity to change shape. Only Marsch-Trenchard, more Annese than human, more anthropologist than tribesman, stands separate: intellectually acute but isolated, estranged, and victimised. This is the final tragedy of the collection: the solitary hybrid, untrammelled by contact with other individuals during his sojourn on Sainte Anne, understanding more than any other character about society, governance and individual and interracial interaction, is denied. His incarceration is the imprisonment of a free spirit enchained physically, spiritually and emotionally by those who suspect and fear difference. The captive John V. Marsch/Victor Trenchard, alone in his benighted cell, is the final, emotive image Wolfe provides of the actions of a species whose poisonous character holds them, like the successive clones of Mr Million’s personality, on a becalmed ship, fearing to embrace the possibilities of an empowering personal and cultural transformation.

This paper was first presented at the Gene Wolfe conference held at the University of Birmingham on Saturday 26th August 2000. It is reproduced with the permission of the author. Peter’s book, Attending Daedalus was published in 2003 by Liverpool University Press. He is also the editor Shadows of the New Sun: Wolfe on Writing/Writers on Wolfe.


  1. Bruce Gillespie, ‘Gene Wolfe’s Sleight of Hand’ in Australian Science Fiction Review, March 1986, p. 15.
  2. Joan Gordon, Starmont Reader’s Guide 29: Gene Wolfe (Washington: Starmont House Inc., 1986), p. 20.
  3. Ibid., p. 27.
  4. Ibid., p. 28.
  5. Pamela Sargent, ‘Lost Peoples: A Review of The Fifth Head of Cerberus‘, Vector: The Critical Journal of the British Science Fiction Association, May-June, 1973, p. 18.
  6. Gordon, p. 25.
  7. Albert Wendland, Science, Myth, and the Fictional Creation of Aliens Worlds (Ann Arbour, Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1985), p. 130.
  8. Ibid., p. 131.
  9. Ibid., p. 136.
  10. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin, Key Concepts in Post-Colonial Studies (London: Routledge, 1998), p. 139.
  11. Gene Wolfe, The Fifth Head of Cerberus (New York: Tor, 1994), p. 31.
  12. Ashcroft et al, p. 139.
  13. Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 86.
  14. Wolfe, p. 73.
  15. Ibid., p. 207.
  16. Ibid., p. 240.
  17. Ibid, p. 21.
  18. Ibid., pp. 130, 154, and 159