The Fifth Head of Cerberus • 1972 • SF novel by Gene Wolfe

★★★★★

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Meta: isfdb. SF Master works #8. SF novel of Gene Wolfe published in 1972. A collection of three novellas: „The Fifth Head of Cerberus,“ „‚A Story‘ by John V. Marsch,“ and „V. R. T.“ Thematically a novel expanding the original novella published in Damon Knight’s Orbit 10.

Synopsis

The novel is a cycle of stories, consisting of three novellas which share two common planets –  Sainte Croix and twin-planet Sainte Anne -, a common character – John V. Marsch, and common topics about identity, humanity, and memory.

The Fifth Head of Cerberus

The first novella is a coming-of-age story with a narrator called „Number Five“ written from a first person point of view.  He looks back at his youth on planet Sainte Croix, the murder of his father and his way to freedom. He was brought up in a luxurious brothel, which financed his father’s genetical experiments on him and his brother David. He meets anthropologist Dr. Marsch and gets to know that he is a descendant of a „family“ of clones. Sick of the terrible experiments, he decides to kill his father, gets caught, is imprisoned. Free again, he returns to his old home, only to repeat his father’s history, because he cannot change.

‚A Story‘ by John V. Marsch

The second novella shifts planet and time to the sister planet Sainte Anne and the ancient past. It tells of the aborigines Sandwalker who searches his kidnapped brother Eastwind. He meets humans of another race, the mythical „Shadow Children“, who influence a starship to land. The brothers‘ identities merge and one meets the arriving French people who will colonize the planet. By the time of Number Five several centuries later it’s even argued that the abos have been entirely wiped out.

V. R. T.

The last novella is about the H. R. Haggard „She“ like diary of anthropologist Dr. Marsch, read by an officer on Sainte Croix. Marsch was mistakenly arrested for murder in the Fifth Head of Cerberus. The diary tells of Marsch’s adventures on Sainte Croix where he wanted to study the aborigines. At some point it becomes clear, that Marsch is really replaced by a shape-changing aborigine.

Review

This is a brilliantly narrated Gothic Mystery, a pivotal story in Gene Wolfe’s writing career and one of the high points of 1970s Science Fiction.

“When I was a boy my brother David and I had to go to bed early whether we were tired or not.”

This first sentence echoes Proust and is the beginning of a masterpiece in prose, world-building, and engaging riddles. The setting of this coming-of-age novella is a future turned to past: slavery friendly Fin de Siècle, post-colonial French town called Port-Mimizon on planet Sainte Croix. The narrator’s home remembers me a bit of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast with its grotesqueness.

You can read the novella as a straight-forward story, but revisiting it leads to the included riddles. Just to name a few: Number Five’s real name, his relation to his girl-friend Phaedria, the nature of the five heads of Cerberus. I won’t point out the solutions here, but if you’re curious, there is a great Wiki resolving all those riddles.

The novella is one of the SF genre’s early discussions of cloning, evolution theory, and human identity: Identity is not only a matter of genes and environment, but also of the soul. By duplicating his father’s life, he denies his individuality.

Besides of the intellectually interesting details, the novella is exciting, emotional, wonderfully Kafkaesque, and full of great ideas. But it is also ambiguous and leaves some elements unresolved – so, if you’re a friend of clear words and fixed endings, then Wolfe might not be your preferred author.

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