Gene Wolfe: The Fifth Head of Cerberus


-Review by Paul Ewbank-


Much like its enigmatic title, The Fifth Head of Cerberus, acclaimed writer Gene Wolfe’s second novel and widely considered one of his best, is a real puzzle. Subtle, intriguing and mysterious, it requires careful reading and possibly multiple re-reads not only to fully appreciate the depth of its themes and ideas but just to decipher what the hell is going on.

The book is split into three separate but inter-related short stories set on the ‘twin’ planets Sainte Anne and Sainte Croix, colonised by humans some time in the future. Though once populated by some form of indigenous life, these aboriginal life-forms are now believed to be extinct. The titular first story concerns an unnamed narrator reflecting back on his childhood growing up in a high-class brothel on Sainte Croix and the events leading up to his imprisonment for the murder of his father. During this time he discovers ‘Veil’s hypothesis’- the idea that the aboriginal population of Sainte Anne were shapeshifters capable of totally imitating the human colonisers, and that these aliens killed all the human settlers and assumed their identities. This idea of imitation and uncertainty is central to the following two stories. ‘A Story, By John V Marsch’ is a bizarre, fable like story of the life of an aboriginal man named Sandwalker as he attempts to rescue his family from a rival tribe with the help of the mysterious shadow children and inadvertently triggers the arrival of the first human colonists. The Final story, ‘V.R.T.’, recounts the exploration of the uncharted backwaters of Sainte Anne by anthropologist Dr Marsch (the same who wrote the previous story) as he attempts to determine whether the aboriginals still live in hiding on the planet.


The central question of the collection is whether Veil’s Hypothesis is true- did the indigenous population kill off all the humans and are the people living there now really their descendants? I should tell you right off that no definitive answer is ever given to this or practically any other question the book raises. Careful reading will reveal a heavily implied answer, but Wolfe certainly doesn’t make it easy for us – you have to piece the answer together from various incidental details and implications. This is made even harder by the writing style. The first story is told fairly conventionally, but through the eyes of a child who does not understand or really seem concerned with the overall mystery of the book, so a lot of the details which will turn out to be crucial later are glossed over. The second story is told in a bafflingly dense, hallucinatory style reminiscent of Harlan Ellison or Ray Bradbury where hard details are passed over in favour of vague impression. First time round you’ll fully understand perhaps only every one sentence in three, but that’s enough to gradually get the gist. Finally, V.R.T. is told in a non linear, almost haphazard fashion, framed as an unnamed military officer looking at random through Marsch’s travel journal and details of his subsequent arrest and interrogation. Though the narrative is fragmented and frequently interrupted, it is this last section of the book that really begins to let the pieces fall into place and tie the three works together.

I don’t mind admitting that a lot of the subtlety and thematic complexity of Fifth Head completely passed me by. You can read blow-by-blow analysis of the book elsewhere online, and such writers allude to the commentary on post-colonialist ideas present in the book. Whilst I can’t say I’m an expert of post-colonialism in any form, I can see what they’re getting at. If you think about any time a technologically superior culture has colonised another country here in the real world, what often happens is the indigenous folk try to mimic the colonists and adopt their customs. Just look at the British Empire and India or the African colonies. Wolfe’s analogy for this is an alien race who can literally change their appearance and way of thinking to reflect that of the colonists, and then forget that they have done so, making themselves indistinguishable from the newcomers. This interplay between colonised and colonist is central to the book, especially the final story where the Earth-born Dr Marsch travels into the wilderness with a boy of supposed aboriginal descent and returns not quite the same man he was. Even without fully grasping all of the implications its still a fascinating idea and played out very cleverly. Wolfe also makes some broader commentary on human nature in the customs and practices of the two colony planets. Slavery is commonplace, and all slaves are subject to cruel brain alterations rendering them docile and stupid. War between the two planets is alluded to, and suspicion and jealousy are high between them. If you assume that Veil was correct then the aboriginal people looked from the outside at human society and in trying to mimic it came up with a world of slavery, corruption and conflict.

Another central idea is that of the uncertainty principle. The people currently living on the two worlds can never be sure that they aren’t the descendants of the shapeshifting aboriginals, and to some extent it doesn’t even matter, since their mimicry was so perfect and all record of it has been lost. In the second story, protagonist Sandwalker has a twin named Eastwind, who was separated from him at birth, and when one sleeps they dream of the other. When Eastwind is killed Sandwalker remarks that he can no longer know whether he is himself or a dream version of his twin. It’s the same dilemma as wondering whether your own waking self is the real version, or if your dreams are actually reality and the world as you know it is the dream. Such questions are inherently fascinating but since there’s no way of ever being sure, they’re also kind of pointless.

Is the same true of Fifth Head? It’s interesting, sure, and brilliantly written, but what does it all add up to? Is there any overall point to glean from all of the mystery and confusion? There certainly aren’t any easy answers on offer, but then it does get you asking the questions, and that may be enough. A more basic issue is whether the book is enjoyable to read. I have to say that at times getting through it was a real slog; the first story is followable enough but at times rather boring, with only a few interesting reveals to keep you reading to its dramatic conclusion. The second tale is downright mystifying, even as its subject matter is more immediate and action-oriented. The final story brings it all together but still leaves you without and real sense of conclusion, and whilst the last few pages really did justify all the opaque confusion that preceded it, you’re going to have to spend a lot of the book totally in the dark. I guess at just over 200 pages it won’t exactly kill you to stick through to the end, so I’d definitely recommend giving this one a go if you’re up for a challenge. It’s about as far from instant gratification as you can get, but is undeniably a fantastic work and a brilliant testament to the power of Science Fiction to address real world issues with poignancy and depth.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Marc Aramini says:

    Wolfe seems to me distinctly modern rather than postmodern – he knows the answers to his mysteries – they are actually there. The thematic repetition of Sandwalker’s feet always hitting the ground, the death of our drowned character by getting his feet swept out from under him, the pain in the survivor’s arm, and the claim that Eastwind is the ancestor of the abos made by Trenchard in VRT all point to Eastwind surviving, believing he is Sandwalker. Despite LeGuin’s statement, the uncertainty principle need not apply to Fifth Head. VRT stands for variance reduction techniques in engineering, in which a series of approximations come close to the true value (as Marsch remarks to Number Five in their talk). However, the middle novella is also a virtual symbolic tale of what happens to Marsch as well as a history (Shadowchildren ride Marshmen – the dendritic aborigines with their heron like stick legs are different than the small Shadowchildren, who are noted in VRT to ride up from the springs on air). Thus, the thin pillar like legs of all the women on St. Croix rather than their hands indicate that they are aborigine, and the parasitic shadow children infect Marsch through the cat bite rather than, as has been supposed, the boy Victor simply taking his place. The parasitic Shadow Children ride him and the death of the boy where a tree reaches out a limb to grab him (the last life cycle of the aborigines, when they become fully sessile) is not made up but a true account. Thus Number 5 is the only human, and the aboriginal hand that is useless is actually Port Mimizon (mimicry), with its street of maggots (the Rue D’Asticot – the larval form of the abos). Castrated Eastwind survives to be the ancestor in the story because it is not the normal sexual life cycle that breeds the parasitic airborne Shadowchildren which infect Marsch, but an airborne, asexual form of invasive reproduction. I have a long comprehensive write up about this if you wanted to look at it

  2. John Kleve says:

    Based on this: , Mimizon is not French for mimicry:
    “Commentary: Apparently, Mimizon is not, as I earlier speculated, French for mimic. As Marcus Weible of Nuremberg tells me, ‘Nowhere in the French language will you find the word ‘mimizon’ or any special meaning associated with it.’ ”
    Unless you have some other reason to think that “Mimizon” means “mimicry”.

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