Gene Wolfe’s 1972 The Fifth Head of Cerberus is such a wealth of ideas rooted in significant subjects that it seems impossible to review in any reasonable amount of space without skipping a vital perspective or ignoring an important element. Certainly a result of the fertility of Wolfe’s initial premise, what follows should be considered a loose breakdown only, the text itself (amazingly only 250 pages) defining the questions leading to the river delta of afterthought.
From a structure standpoint, The Fifth Head of Cerberus is comprised of three individual novellas. Character and theme interwoven throughout each to form a larger whole, the eponymous first tells the story of #5 and his brother, and their strange relationship with their father. Raised in a brothel under mysterious circumstances, a secret they uncover leads one to act in drastic fashion. The second, “’A Story,’ by John V. Marsch”, is the “Neolithic” tale of the twins Sandwalker and Eastwind who, after being separated at birth, meet in life under the most mythic of circumstances. The third and final novella titled “V.R.T.” is the story of the anthropologist John Marsch, who after visiting the brothel, runs afoul of the law, his journals and records revealing the strangest of histories.
The setting of the novel two planets rotating around each other, Sainte Anne and Sainte Croix, twinship becomes an idea binding the three stories together. Each of the novellas features a pair of people, the survival and identity of each anything but certain. Cloning, shapeshifting, and lifelike holograms all influencing storyline, nothing is fixed regarding the appearance of things between the duos. Connected to the overall scope of the book, the motif is strong commentary regarding the value of identity to society.
The growth and development of young men also a feature of each of the novellas, coming-of-age is likewise a connecting theme. #5 in the first, Sandwalker in the second, and the unnamed V.R.T. in the third, all undergo rites of passage that usher them into more mature stages of their lives—what exactly lies at that stage and its meaning to the others is for the reader to discover.
But, as The Fifth Head of Cerberus was written around the time of the Vietnam war, the strongest theme underlying the novellas is post-colonialism. The back story of the novel being that Earthlings have come and taken over the two planets—first the French, and later an unnamed global group, the shapeshifting natives of Saint Anne and Croixe are dealt with according to a paradigm not dissimilar to US involvement in southeast Asia in the late 60s and early 70s. The distance forced between the cultures in the book so great, some character accounts doubt whether the natives ever existed. In fact, Marsch’s mission in the third novella is to journey to their rumored location in the mountains to discover whether any remain. (For scholarly info on this topic see this great article—and website—though be warned, spoilers abound.)
Wolfe’s style studied and prosaic, the only “flaws” of the novel are a matter of preference. For example, the narratives, though comprehensive, are not always laid out in an easily understandable fashion. Wolfe scatters hints and clues allusively and elusively throughout the narrative, leaving the reader to put two and two together as to the “real” story. For example, Marsch makes a few brief appearances in the first novella, though his actions are unclear. The entirety of the third devoted to him, the pieces start falling into place what exactly his role is the closer events move toward the conclusion, the other chips on the board revealing themselves. And there are other examples of interesting scenes requiring a second and third thought to puzzle out their reality. The other problem some readers may have is that the overall narrative is anything but linear. The end coming before the beginning, and the middle told from several perspectives and time stances, some may get confused in the process, though most will have few problems. Suffice to say, it is not a standard novel regarding structure and style.
In the end, The Fifth Head of Cerberus contains a strong variety of ideas, both thematic and conceptual. The number of possible perspectives to take on the book, as can be seen, is a treasure trove just waiting to be unearthed. Wolfe’s idea rigidly fixed in the details, the book is thereafter pliant to the point of accommodating a wide scope of storylines, timelines, and themes. From globalization to identity, totalitarianism to post-colonialism, a wealth of material is available to the attentive reader—an amazing feat for such a short book. As such, it makes for an excellent introduction to Wolfe’s work. For those concerned that his Book of the New Sun may be complex beyond comprehension, Fifth Head is a good litmus test. On a wider spectrum of authors, fans of Brian Aldiss, Christopher Priest, Stanislaw Lem, and particularly Ursula Le Guin, will want to take note; this is intelligent sci-fi that does not patronize.