The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe – Book Review

It took me a couple of reads to wrap my head around this haunting, disorienting and imaginative trio of sci-fi novellas that take the reader into a labyrinth full of mirrors and puzzles.

I made a note to myself about The Fifth Head of Cerberus after Neil Gaiman, one of my all-time favourite writers, praised it in the most effusive way in one of his essays, and it definitely turned out to be an extraordinary, memorable read. It says something about a book when, after finishing the last page, you’re left mostly confused and frustrated and yet eager to read the book all over again, in the hope of getting closer to the truth.

Truth and reliability is a slippery idea in Wolfe’s novel about memory and identity, with its unreliable narrators who can only perceive a part of the larger story, are misled by others, or in fact may themselves be liars. At times, trying to get a firm grip may feel like grasping at a school of fish.

The setting is the twin planets of Sainte Anne and Sainte Croixe, initially colonised by the French who were later defeated in a hinted on but not fully explained war by some English-speaking nation(s). The society that’s emerged after the war is both quaint and futuristic, still retaining its Gallic heritage, with genetic engineering and space travel existing alongside slavery. Then there’s the indigenous inhabitants of Sainte Anne, a race of humanoid shapeshifters mostly believed to be extinct. There are however rumours and theories that the aborigines had in fact killed and replaced the human colonisers, and absorbed their identities to the point where they forgot who they really are.

At first glance, the three interconnected novellas differ wildly in style and subject matter. The first one can be seen as an unusual coming-of-age story about a boy growing up in a brothel with his younger brother, a distant and eccentric scientist father, and a robot tutor named Mr Million. The middle tale reads like a mythical fever dream about two twin brothers, Sandwalker and Eastwind, who are born on what is later known as the planet of Sainte Anne, just before the fateful arrival of the explorers from Earth. The third novella is a jumble of diary entries, testimonials and interrogation records, centering on the experiences of John Marsch, an anthropologist from Earth who visits the twin planets in order to uncover the mystery of Sainte Anne’s aborigines, but later finds himself imprisoned on the suspicions of murder and espionage.

Taken together, the three novels do illuminate each other, and a second, more careful read where I tried to zero in on the details was especially rewarding. While some of its main questions remain unsolved (and probably unsolvable by design), the stories do take on a clearer shape once you spot the casually placed clues. In a way they reminded me of the more cryptic novels by the Strugatsky brothers, with their forever unexplained mysteries, limited perspectives, deliberately withheld conversations that you’d really want to read about, and the general feeling that the reader can only speculate about the bigger picture. It’s definitely not a book for those who want everything explained and neatly laid out by the end.

The disorienting vibe of The Fifth Head of Cerberus comes in large part from the story being mostly told from within the culture, with no helpful fish-out-of-water hero as a tool of world-building. Because the narrators are already fully immersed in their world, as a reader you’re left to slowly piece together the history and culture of their societies, and be chilled by the way various cruelties are completely normalised in their worlds: the treatment of women, monstrous experiments performed on human beings, genocide, slavery and cannibalism. The final novella also touches on the tyranny of an authoritarian government and the absurdities of a bureaucracy, with scenes reading like something out of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.

Even on my first, largely confused read, I was able to appreciate Wolfe’s vivid and detailed prose (the writing in the second folkloric story is especially lyrical and evocative), mastery of tone and atmosphere, and the sheer amount of layers and intriguing ideas packed into just over two hundred pages. I suspect it’s one of those books that might reveal something different every time you visit it anew, and leaves every reader with their own take.

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