Thursday, September 6, 2012

Review of "The Fifth Head of Cerberus" by Gene Wolfe

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.


  1. Hi Jesse, I've just discovered your blog and your reading tastes seem similar to my own, though I have yet to tackle Wolfe. Your reviews are thoughtful, considered and well written. I shall be returning here for more of the same over the next while, especially when I pluck up the courage to start my first Wolfe. What's a good starting point?


    1. Firstly, thank you for the kind words about my blog. Regarding a good starting point for Wolfe, it (of course) depends on what kind of books you appreciate and have experience with. Wolfe writes, sci-fi, fantasy, and everything between in a variety of styles, lengths, and complexity. Beyond genre, one way to delimit his books is based on accessibility. Some novels are very dense and allusive and require close reading, if not re-reading, to fully appreciate them (The three Soldier books, The Fifth Head of Cerberus, and An Evil Guest, for example), while others can be approached with a more relaxed attitude, the content more explicit (The Wizard Knight, The Book of the Long Sun, Free live Free, and others). And a third way to look at his works is length. Many of his books are parts of larger series and require a greater effort time-wise (Any of the books in the three Sun series and The Wizard Knight), the remainder standard length, stand-alone fiction.

      Based on this variety, it is difficult to recommend a good starting point for Wolfe. But if pushed into a corner, I would say The Wizard Knight. It's long, but it contains the majority of elements representative of a Wolfe novel. The fantasy is light but integral, there is emphasis on dialogue over direct exposition, and perhaps most importantly, personal development highlights the thematic material. If the length scares you, Pirate Freedom is a story similar to The Wizard Knight in shorter form, but is not as rich imaginatively. If Arthurian fantasy is not your game, then you might try one of Wolfe's "realist" novels like Peace or There Are Doors.

      Hope this helps. :)

  2. Congratulations on an excellent blog!

    I'm a long standing Wolfe reader, always on the prowl for new or yet unread earlier works. e.g. I've yet to read An Evil Guest. In answer to Adrian I would place the four Severian books - four plus The Urth Of The New Sun - at the top of the list for someone newly discovering Wolfe.

    Incidentally many readers characterize Gene Wolfe as a fantasy rather than a science fiction writer, viewing sci fi as a sub genre of fantasy. That term encompasses pretty well all of Wolfe's oeuvre, from Free Live Free to The Wizard Knight to Soldier Of Sidon.

    1. The book of the New Sun is also a good place to start, it's just not as initially accessible as The Wizard Knight. Regarding the idea that science fiction is a sub-set of fantasy, I would strongly disagree. Arthur C. Clarke did say that any sufficiently advanced form of technology is like unto fantasy, but from a genre perspective, most often the line between is clear: science fiction is the yet impossible while fantasy is the impossible. Wolfe does seem to make one appear the other, and vice versa, but I think his works remain separable. The Wizard Knight is clearly fantasy, while the Sun books, though as fantastic as they may seem at times, are science fiction.