a web resource for the study of Gene Wolfe

The Fifth Head of Cerberus reviewed

Gene Wolfe, The Fifth Head of Cerberus (Millennium, 1999)

reviewed by Robert Borski

“When I was a boy my brother David and I had to go to bed early whether we were tired or not.” So begins, with its Proustian echo, the titular novella of Gene Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus, first published in 1972. Since then, of course, author Wolfe has scribed a number of additional masterpieces, and his reputation as sf’s most accomplished writer seems guaranteed for some time to come, but it was in Fifth Head (after a rather unremarkable tyro novel) that Wolfe first consolidated his literary bones and astonished readers with a novel that is not only boldly and complexly different, but resonant with many of the themes and preoccupations that would later come to dominate his work. It was and remains a must read and should rank high on everyone’s favourite Top Ten list of genre classics; it also has everything it needs to commend itself to lovers of fine literature in general–so don’t be afraid to recommend it to your non-genre friends.

Taking place on the sister worlds of Sainte Anne and Sainte Croix, Fifth Head consists of three semi-linked novellas–besides the opening piece, there is the oddly-titled “‘A Story,’ by John V. Marsch” and the closing “V.R.T.” Characters met in the first novella reappear in the third, while the fictional constructs encountered in the second–an extended faux fable about what life might have been like for the native Annese (or abos) before their world becomes colonised by the space-faring French–have real-life counterparts in the pieces that bookend it. This interrelatedness, in fact, epitomises much of Fifth Head‘s unique structure; it’s tripartite to be sure, but holistically so, being, as the book’s various narrative, tonal and thematic skeins wind in and out and back amongst themselves, recursive to the nth degree, like a specular Moebius strip. And if this isn’t challenging enough, while the story-telling thrust in the first two novellas is relatively straight-forward, “V.R.T” is told anachronically, with the reader left to piece everything together from a fragmentary, disjointed narrative, with at least one startling paradigm shift not everyone catches on his or her first time through. And so: for the intrepid reader willing to pursue something more substantial than “sci-fi” lite (and I assume that’s why you’ve come to Ultan’s Library), Fifth Head offers much pleasure.

Looking a little bit more now at the various novellas: while “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” opens up the book, much of it actually takes place after events in both “A Story” and “V.R.T.” Like Proust’s Marcel, “Fifth Head’s” first-person narrator is actually reflecting upon his life and its vicissitudes, describing from the perspective of an adult what it’s been like for him to have grown up at 666 Saltimbanque St., in Port Mimizon of the planet Sainte Croix. And so we’re introduced via flashback to the narrator’s half-brother David, their robotic tutor Mr. Million (who is also their grandfather), the scientist/brothelmaster Maitre (who is their father) and crippled Aunt Jeannine, who is also a respected anthropologist named Aubrey Veil. Maitre soon enough emerges as the novella’s most sinister figure, retrieving and subjecting his young son to disorienting sessions of drugs and hypnosis, and it’s also he who provides our narrator with the only name he’s identified by in the book: Number Five (though both his first and last name are eminently decodeable). In the course of Maitre’s investigations, Number Five’s sense of reality becomes more and more skewed, but eventually we learn that he is a clone of Maitre, who is seeking to determine why his once-so-promising-family has failed to rise socially and intellectually among the elite of Sainte Croix (indeed, it now seems to have entered a Buddenbrooks -like decline). How Number Five exacts his revenge upon Maitre for his stolen childhood you must read for yourself, but know that it does not occur before we meet Terran scientist Dr. John Marsch, who comes to the bordello hoping to discuss Veil’s Hypothesis with its originator (Aunt Jeannine’s contention is that the shape-changing abos of Sainte Anne have killed and replaced the original French colonists). Know also that the last sentence of the novella is as chilling as any written in all of science fiction and effectively encapsulates the mindset of all incipient tyrannical figures, from petty to broad-scale.

If called anything else, “‘A Story,’ by John V. Marsch” would still be an intricate and deft piece of fiction, but it is the inferences in the title that give Fifth Head‘s second novella its soupçon of delicity as well as its pivotal link to the rest of the novel. We’ve met John Marsch by now, of course, and know who he is (or think so), and later, in “V.R.T”, it’s implied that “‘A Story'” has been written while the good doctor has been incarcerated on Sainte Croix. Thus his expertise about the self-described Free People seems plausible, he being, after all, an anthropologist who has made it his life’s mission to learn everything he can about the native Annese. And so we marvel at his depiction of abo folkways and meet the thirteen-year old John Sandwalker, who is about to undertake a walkabout that will bring him into contact with many strange figures (significantly, all three novellas feature young men on the cusp of manhood, making Fifth Head very much a rite of passage novel). Among these are the shadow children, cannibalistic pygmies that keep to the dark and whose names differ according to how many their group numbers, as well as the Old One, who may be their mind-generated, consensual spokesgeist. But encountered too is his own natural clone (twinship being another of Fifth Head‘s leitmotifs), John Eastwind, who has been washed away in a river shortly after childbirth and adopted by a rival tribe, and it is during their fratricidal re-encounter that the skies open up and the first French landing party touches down on Sainte Anne. The stage is now set for their swift decimation by the technologically superior Terrans, and by the time of Number Five several centuries later it’s even argued that the abos have been entirely wiped out.

Only in “V.R.T.” do we learn differently. The story, however, is anything but straightforward. This is because “V.R.T.” is told in mosaic fashion. Framing everything is the present-time narrative, wherein an unnamed junior military officer is seeking to adjudicate the case of John V. Marsch, who has been arrested as a possible murder suspect, but is also suspected of being a spy (there has been a war between Sainte Anne and Sainte Croix, which the latter has won, and tensions remain high). Much of what the officer examines takes the form of extracts. Among the materials he samples during the long night that encompasses his task are taped interviews by various interrogators of Marsch, the field journal made by Marsch as he journeys through the Annese outback with a young man who claims to be half-human and half-abo, and Marsch’s prison diary, written as he awaits his still-to-be-determined fate. Little is told chronologically, and often mundanities from the present-time narrative intrude, but we learn in short enough time how graduate student Marsch has come to Sainte Anne hoping to achieve his doctorate in anthropology by studying the allegedly extinct abos. Marsch conducts his own series of interviews with older people who claim to have seen living abos, and in the course of so doing meets a local con artist named Trenchard, who brags of fathering a child on an Annese woman–the very same V.R.T. of the title–with whom he soon sets off into the Annese outback in search of abo sacred places. I will not disclose the crucial events that happen here, saying only that the Dr. Marsch we meet earlier in the opening novella eventually returns to civilisation, achieves his doctorate, goes to Sainte Croix, where he mingles with the inhabitants of 666 Saltimbanque, only to wind up running afoul of the law and being arrested. As for his final disposition within the military justice system–well, let us just say that it’s apposite, if for all the wrong reasons. And so the novel ends, but not without a repeated image from the first few pages, implying its cyclity of events–which is more than germane to a big chunk of Fifth Head‘s thematic crux.

But like most Wolfe novels, this signals not so much the end of events, but the rebeginning, because now you’re free to go back and attempt to solve many of the encrypted puzzles GW has buried within the narrative. What, for example, is Number Five’s real name? Can we decode what the R in V.R.T means? (The V and the T are easily solved.) And who is the unnamed junior officer who decides John Marsch’s fate, and the lady in pink, and Number Five’s sister? I will always contend that for a novel whose central theme involves the search for identity, no one is quite who or what he/she seems. In other words beware of early conclusions, and keep in mind that on occasion even mythical three-headed dogs may bark at shadows–especially in this much-treasured early and seminal work by Gene Wolfe.


Strange Travelers reviewed


Confounding the Skin and the Mask: Gene Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus and the Politics of Ambiguity

1 Comment

  1. Usman

    Not gonna lie, read this book for my final high-school English assignment and this article was tops for understanding the intricacy of the book. I applaud you.

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