The Fifth Head of Cerberus
by Gene Wolfe
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted January 13, 2022
Buy from Bookshop or Amazon. A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.
There are some who identify this book as a novel, but from the very first publication it was specified to be three novellas. They are connected, looking at various plot elements from different perspectives, but they could be read separately without confusion. Or I should say, no more confusion than is typical for a Wolfe story. They are complex and mysterious, and at times seem to offer contradicting "facts." According to wikipedia (which calls it a novel on one page, but a collection on another), Wolfe first presented the title story at a Milford Writer's Workshop, a group that had been co-founded by Damon Knight. Its first publication came in one of Knight's original anthologies, Orbit 10, in February 1972. I'm not sure what year that workshop was, but definitely prior to '72, since that was the year it moved to the UK under the mentorship of James Blish. While at the workshop, an editor from Scribner's suggested he expand it to book length. The collection was published in June of '72, so I'll bet the two extra stories had already been written before the Orbit anthology. I first read it in Terry Carr's Best SF of the Year #2, then later learned of the collection, of which I've had two different copies, currently a first edition hardcover. This reading confirms it is still among the best stories I've ever read, and the reason I was very disappointed with his first novel, published earlier but which I read later. It is almost like they are from completely different writers.
"The Fifth Head of Cerberus," the novella, could be considered Gothic Horror, reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe, but it is also science fiction. It is set on Sainte Croix, a planet some twenty light years from Earth. It and its sister planet, Sainte Anne, had been originally colonized by the French, but they were defeated in a war about a hundred years prior to the main action, although it is never specified by whom. Descendants of French settlers are now primarily slaves on Sainte Anne, but many had been able to buy their way to freedom on Sainte Croix. The first confusion comes with the title. The mythical Cerberus had three heads, as did the metal sculpture that sat by the entrance to the Maison du Chien, both the home of the story's narrator, and his "father's" business establishment, a brothel. I put father in quotes since it becomes apparent that the narrator, who never reveals his name, is a clone. It can be speculated that the family's surname is Wolfe, since when he was a young boy the narrator was told his father had written many books, but when he looked for them in a library he did not find any between others written by Kate Wilhelm and Virginia Woolf. One by Vernor Vinge was apparently mis-shelved, the librarian mistaking V.Vinge for Winge. Kim Stanley Robinson speculated that "gene" would be the perfect name for a clone, and wiki says Wolfe confirmed that. In addition to running a brothel, the father was also a medical practioner, or at least an amateur dabbling in the field. At a young age, the narrator is taken into his father's laboratory, in which he is tested under hypnosis and/or drugs, which produce vivid and disturbing dreams, and later lapses in consciousness. His father refers to him as Number Five.
The father is apparently a clone himself, so the designation of Number Five might refer only to the major line from the original, but we later learn there are many more clones than that within just the narrator's own lifetime. Many of them might have been botched experiments, later destroyed. Others were specifically designed for various tasks, either as menial slaves or as combatants in organized fights, for which vivisection is also employed beyond the cloning process. It is also implied some of the brothel's women have been genetically or physically altered to suit various men's tastes. After he becomes known as Number Five, "Gene" figures the other four are his father, his seldom seen aunt, his brother David, and the robotic servitor M.Million. He later learns the first "M" he reads on the robot's body does not mean Monsieur, but rather is the Roman numeral for a thousand, and the dot after it is not a period but a multiplication symbol, designating the number of simulated neural connections installed (1,000 x 1,000,000). It's still not enough to insure total memory retention, but enough that M.Million knows its progenitor was Gene's great-grandfather. Thus M.Million would have to be considered Number Two, and then Gene's grandfather and father before him. His "aunt" is not a clone, but the natural-born daughter of a previous clone, and David is not a clone, but son of a woman who is no longer around. We get no information on who she was, whether she's alive or dead. There's only an old photo.
The story begins when Gene and David are very young, but the writing of it didn't begin until much later, after Gene was released from prison. He's telling us what led up to his crime, but he also gives us insight into the culture of Sainte Croix, what he learns from his tutor M.Million, things he learns from his aunt, as well as his adventures with David and other friends. He is attracted to a girl he meets in a park, later joining Phaedria and others in performing plays in the park, for which they earn a little money. Phaedria wants more though, so they begin a series of burglaries, during one of which he comes back to consciousness not realizing where he is or what they are doing. The blackouts become more frequent, which forces him to decide he must end the ordeal, he must kill his father. You might think I've revealed too much, but the beauty of this story is not in the plot, but in the mesmerizing prose as the narrator struggles to understand his past, and what his future might be. It ends with a very puzzling line — "Someday they'll want us." Who is they, and who is us? Has he taken up his father's experiments and cloned yet another generation, or could it refer to something completely different? Another question, has any of his narration been reliable? If so, did he leave out any pertinent details?
"The Fifth Head of Cerberus" was a finalist for Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and Seiun awards as best novella, and the collection was also a Locus finalist. John Clute wrote the main Wolfe article in the Science Fiction Encylopedia. I'm not sure if he said this about the title novella or the collection as a whole: "It was the first significant demonstration of the great difficulty of reading Gene Wolfe without constant attention to the almost subliminal—but in retrospect or after re-reading almost invariably lucid and inevitable—clues laid down in the text to govern its comprehension." This was probably at least the fifth time I've read it, and I pick up new things every time, but other questions remain. I'm fine with that still, at least until the next re-read. I'll try to be more concise about the other two novellas.
The title character of "'A Story' by John V. Marsch" is an anthropologist from Earth (or so we're led to believe), who made two brief appearances in Cerberus. I think both of those appearances were after he went to Sainte Anne, but the span of time between his visits is vague, and they may have been in between his trip to Sainte Anne. He came to Maison du Chien because he thought that was where he would find the originator of "Veil's Hypothesis," which postulated that the native inhabitants of Sainte Anne were shapeshifters. I'm not sure when he is telling this story, but it's possible it's part of his journals which make up a large portion of the third novella. It reads like a myth told by an aborigine, so he may have heard it from one of his guides while there. Twin boys are born, the first to emerge from his mother's womb was named Eastwind, from the cool breeze blowing at the time. The second was a breach birth, his feet coming first, beating against the ground. He was named Sandwalker. Tradition said a newborn must be washed in the river soon after birth. The mother, Cedar Branches Waving, held Sandwalker, her mother holding Eastwind. A fast river current took the grandmother and Eastwind away, and both are assumed drowned. Years later, Eastwind returns as the leader of a rival tribe. If the abos were actually shapeshifters, could it be he is not the real Eastwind, but instead another who took his shape? Supposedly shapeshifters would also retain the other's memories. Before Eastwind's later appearance, Sandwalker travels north to find a mystic in his sacred cave, and during his journey he had a dream as if he was Eastwind, and Eastwind had dreamt of Sandwalker in return.
Veil's Hypothesis stated that the abos could shapeshift into others of their own kind, or animals, or inanimate objects such as trees. The theory extends to believing the abos transformed themselves into humans after their arrival, and stayed that way to expiate their guilt over killing all the humans. Some humans (if they are humans) believe the abos did exist in the past, but are now extinct after being wiped out by the colonists. Others think some abos survive, but they're hiding in the "back of beyond." Which is true? It's a toss-up, I'll be wondering about that a long time. There are times I think Sandwalker is only imagining Eastwind, out of a longing for his lost brother. At others maybe it's truly Eastwind, still angry at his mother for not trying to save him as a child. But how would he have memory of her, or of Sandwalker? Who found him and gave him that information? There is another character at the end who may be a human as he claims, or an abo who had transformed into a human they had killed. The prose is dreamlike, even nightmarish on occasion, and as with most dreams it is difficult to interpret, or easy to interpret in different ways, take your pick.
The title character of "V.R.T." is a teenage boy on Sainte Anne, whose father claims to be an abo. The father's name is Trenchard, but we never learn V.R.'s full name. He doesn't narrate the story, but things he says and does are related by Dr. Marsch in his journals. Bits and pieces of them are revealed out of linear order as an investigator shuffles through Marsch's belongings after Marsch is arrested. The investigation also includes transcriptions of audio recordings, and transcriptions of interrogations after the arrest, and parts of the journals were written after the arrest. It takes a long time for Marsch to learn why he was arrested, but he was initially suspected of killing the proprietor of Maison du Chien, whose death came right after Marsch's second visit. But Number Five was convicted of that crime, and later they think Marsch might be a spy for Sainte Anne. The two planets may be on the verge of war. He is moved from one cell to a much more austere and uncomfortable one, probably as a way to break his spirit and convince him to reveal the information his captors want. He either doesn't have that information, since he isn't a spy, or else he may not even be Dr. Marsch. Could he actually be V.R.T.? His father wasn't the abo, it was his mother, so he was only half human. Or has Marsch lost all touch with reality? As the captain of the jail sorts through the journals, we read Marsch's thoughts on arrival on Sainte Anne, how he found Trenchard and employed him as a guide, then later it was only he and the boy on the trail of the sacred cave from the previous story. One entry tells of V.R.T.'s death, of how Marsch buried him, but another reads as if it was the other way around, that Marsch died, and V.R.T. took his place.
I doubt if I've figured out all the clues, since they are so randomly placed, moving elliptically through the stories, and we can't be sure any of them are reliable. In addition to being part Gothic Horror, part Science Fiction, part Myth as Fantasy, part legal investigation, there is also much to do with colonialism and racism, political and class conflicts. Not to mention the contemplation of memory and selfhood, guilt and recrimination, nature versus nurture. For such an early work, this remains one of Wolfe's best, and I know it will take more re-readings to unravel all its mysteries. I'll probably think of other things I should have said as soon as I upload it, but still not be able to penetrate everything he intended. Even if the title novella was the last he had written, he would still be very close to the top of my list of favorite writers. Please seek out this book if you haven't read it already. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
We would appreciate your support for this site with your purchases from Amazon.com, Bookshop.org, and ReAnimusPress.