Book Review: Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe

I’ll be sure to post more about Gene Wolfe in the future, as he is rapidly becoming one of my favorite writers. Today’s book is one of his more famous standalone titles. In the early 70s Wolfe had managed to place a bunch of short stories in magazines and publish an infamously bad novel (called Operation Ares, he has done all he can to suppress it) when he wrote a novella entitled “The Fifth Head of Cerberus.” He presented at a workshop and an editor liked it so much he offered to publish it if Wolfe expanded it into a novel-length work. This prompted Wolfe to write two more novellas, vaguely linked to the first one, that when combined form a whole bigger than the parts and became Wolfe’s breakout work.

The “novel” or “collection” (whatever you want to call it) takes place on the double worlds of Sainte Anne and Sainte Croix. Saint Anne once bore an indigenous population of aboriginal shape-shifters who were apparently wiped out by the humans, but an in-universe theory states that the first colonists may have been themselves overwhelmed by this species, that then shifted into looking like humans and forgot how to change back.

Against this backdrop are the three stories. The title one is about twin brothers growing up on Saint Croix in their father’s brothel. But things are more than they seem, and gene-splicing and murder bring the story to its exciting conclusion. An anthropologist, John Marsh, appears twice in the story, the first time to ask the narrator’s aunt about her theories (that the natives replaced the humans).

The next story has all the poetry of a myth and it might as well be considered one. “’A Story,’ by John V. Marsh” is ostensibly a reconstruction of an old tale by the indigenous people. This is probably the densest piece and although it can be enjoyed in its own right, patience is required to see how it relates to the other novellas. It is a dreamlike work about the coming of age of a native and the discovery of his long lost twin brother. Though this simple summary does the novella a disservice, to say more would just confuse people; the work needs to be taken as a whole.

The next story, “V.R.T.,” is again about John Marsh. Suspected of being a spy, he is locked away and a sergeant looks through his confiscated journals about his life on the twin planets and about an expedition he took to try to find any remnants of the indigenous population. His guide is a teenager with the initials V.R.T. and claims to be half shape-shifter. On a narrative level, this is the most intricate story here, alternating between descriptions of the sergeant and the various books he reads.

Fifth Head of Cerberus is definitely a book I’ll be returning to, partly because of how great it is, partly because you often have to read Wolfe multiple times in order to really understand what he’s saying. Many of his books are like puzzles. This is one of his more obscure ones, but it’s also one of his most interesting experiments. Just accept that you won’t get everything the first time around (or even the second…or third…), let it wash over you like a Pynchon novel, and you might just find another must-read author.

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One thought on “Book Review: Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe

  1. Joachim Boaz April 25, 2016 / 12:50 am

    I recommend his earlier short stories (as this is classified as a “fix-up” novel) as well — he manages to do so much with so few words. “The Changeling” + “The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories” are two of my favorites….

    Liked by 1 person

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