Science Fiction Though the Decades

Thursday, February 9, 2012

1972: The Fifth Head of Cerberus (Wolfe, Gene)

Flips your paradigm's polarity; follow closely (4/5)

I have a love/hate relationship with the works of Gene Wolfe... I'm sure this isn't uncommon among science fiction readers. I love linear and elegant plots, but I'm also fond of florid prose, plot backtracking, and red herrings. Gene Wolfe provides much of this and for that I'm thankful, but some of the passages (much like some of his short stories) are unfathomable, needlessly laden with mythological allegory and context. I've never been a reader of mythology; this one point turns me off to some of his work and parts of this novel. And if you know anything about Gene Wolfe, while his writing is beautiful, he's rarely ever straight to the point (allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions - clever at times, annoying on other occasions).

Written in 1972, Gene Wolfe expanded the novella "The Fifth Head of Cerberus" into a novel by including the last two novellas. Each novella has its own characters, one straight story with tiers of complexity, another story saturated in impenetrable allegories, and the last story structured around the scaffolding of "found-footage."

(1) The Fifth Head of Cerberus - 5/5 - A nameless narrator reflects on his childhood upon the French colonized planet of Sainte Croix, which shares a solar orbit with its sister-planet Sainte Anne. Reclusively living in his father's mansion/bordello, the narrator/to-be-named Number Five learns from an "unbound simulator" with his brother David. As Number Five ages and meets his love interest, the pair begin to stage plays for public viewing, but soon find themselves short of cash. Reflecting on the borderline torture Number Five is receiving by his father, the two concoct a plan. (71 pages) ----- Such an excellent novella for its portrait of a decaying colony, the rich yet mysterious history regarding the settlers, and the ballet of emotion between the characters. What impressed me most, however, was the way Wolfe challenged my cognitive grasp of the plot, forcing me to reverse the polarity of my viewpoint, by allowing me to sink through layers of chaotic deception and yanking me straight back to the calm surface of awe. Very impressed!

(2) "A Story," by John V. Marsch - 3/5 - John Sandwalker is traveling on foot in search for the high priest, a hermit in the hills of Thunder Always. Befriending the natives of the planet, John Sandwalker is allowed into the communal circles of the Shadow children, hearing their songs and their tales. John's twin brother Eastwind captures John and the Shadow's and throws them into a sand prison where others are indentured, awaiting execution in the river for Eastwind's clan's feast. (57 pages) ----- I wasn't following the logic or allegory of the first half of the novella at all. It felt too much like Delany's The Einstein Intersection, with felt lost in its own plane of existence; nothing felt connected, nothing felt relevant, nothing felt tactile. Only in the last half do hypotheses come to light, suggestions are delicately put forward, and good amount of guesswork leaves the reader their own paradigm of truth behind the planet, its people, and its lost inhabitants.

(3) V.R.T. - 4/5 - An interrogator on Sainte Anne fingers through material collected in regards to the incident involving the earth-born anthropologist, John Marsch. Transcripts of interrogation, excerpts from John's scribomania, journal entries from John's trek on Sainte Croix... all interspersed with interrogator's thoughts about his review. (108 pages) ----- I'm a huge fan of "found-footage" type stories with peripheral yet relevant data, like in John Brunner's The Sheep Look Up or Filbrun's Gemini Rising. The history of the case is detailed and adds a distinct flavor to the end of the novel, which leaves the reader with one of two paradigms regarding WHO Number Five is, who John Marsch is, and what ever happened to those reportedly transmogrifying native inhabitants.


  1. I have just finished reading the novel for my book review blog but I, likewise with yourself, have a love\hate relationship with this book. I really wanted to like the novel but found it difficult to follow. I think the identity of characters should have been clearer, specifically during the shape-shifting elements. That said, I thought the themes and ideas presented in the book were great - I love mythology generally. :)

  2. Thanks for stopping by! It certainly took some concentration to follow the stories, that's for sure... it's no beach read. Wolfe's books are hard to like but very satisfying when the bigger picture is seen from all the mosaic-like pieces littered throughout. I haven't thrown one of his books across the room yet :)