Novel Review: The Fifth Head of Cerberus

“Veil’s Hypothesis supposes the abos to have possessed the ability to mimic mankind perfectly. Veil thought that when the ships came from Earth the abos killed everyone and took their places and the ships, so they’re not dead at all, we are”(31).

Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun may be his most lasting work of speculative fiction, but the talented writer produced a number of memorable books including this quirky novel, which addresses such topics as colonialism, totalitarianism, and identity.

Title: The Fifth Head of Cerberus

Author:Gene Wolfe.

ISBN: 0-312-89020-6

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The novel consists of three shorter, intertwined novellas. The first, the eponymous “Fifth Head of Cerberus,” originally appeared in Orbit in 1972. Set on a colonized planet, it concerns “Five,” the son of a brothel owner, who begins to delve into the mysteries that surround his own origins. The second, “A Story by John V. Marsch,” features a mythic account of the planet’s fabled original inhabitants, as written by Dr. Marsch, a character from the first part. The third relates Marsch’s experiences on two colonies through fragments of documents being examined by his jailers.

High Points:

The everyday believability of the world “Five” lives in works nicely with the bizarre mystery he explores regarding personal identity. Wolfe raises questions which he cannot fully answer; his novel forces us to engage those questions ourselves.

Wolfe also impressed me with his depiction of the petty bureaucrats who run the colonial world where “Marsch” finds himself imprisoned. We’re in Orwellian and Kafkaesque territory, but without the satiric exaggeration of those authors. The officials behave exactly as totalitarian and even totalitarian-leaning governments do. Hell, this is how elected governments act, when they’re faced with extreme pressures and too weak to hold to their principles.

Low Points:

I can accept the ambiguities regarding the mysterious disappearance of the original inhabitants. Wolfe provides enough clues to keep us interested and debating. However, the overall ending feels too open. I don’t need a definitive solution to the novel’s mysteries, but I should not be left feeling like The Fifth Head is missing a fourth part.

The Scores:

Originality: 5/6. Wolfe has invented worlds with real history. I found the sense of the colonies’ culture most acute in the first tale. The two worlds’ excessive similarity to earth suits the novel’s commentary on colonialism, but at times (particularly in the third tale) I felt I was reading a novel about the nineteenth century and an alien mystery that as easily could have been a supernatural one set on earth.

Imagery: 5/6.

He showed me a small stone marker with an incription in French attesting to the fact that the first human party to reach Sainte Anne had splashed down twenty-five kilometers out to sea and landed their boats where we stood. On this stretch of beach I think I was more conscious than I ever have been before of being on a world foreign to my own; the sand was littered everywhere with seashells, with something alien about them all, so that I believe even if I had found one on a Terrestrial beach I would have known that it had never been washed up by any ocean of Earth’s.

Story: 4/6

Characterization: 6/6. Wolfe ranks among the best writers of the last century in terms of his ability to render characters.

Emotional Response: 5/6 The response varies. During the more intense moments, the involvement he creates with his characters results in a powerful response to their feelings and experiences. The overall confusion, however, may mute some people’s reactions.

Editing: 6/6. Wolfe has an engaging style, reminiscent of the great Victorian writers, though less ornate.

Overall Score: 5/6.

In total, The Fifth Head of Cerberus receives 36 out of 42