Like the novel with which it will be discussing, this review-come-journal entry will be apportioned into three distinct parts. In the first, I shall discuss how Gene Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus ended up on my reading river, in the second I’ll give a spoiler-free profile of the book and what to expect, and in the third I will be offering some analysis and interpretation of the content therein. That way, I feel like I can write something that is inclusive to both those who have read the book and those I hope to tempt to pick it up on their next bookstore and fro-yo run.
I got my copy of the book in a little store called Fopp in Bristol, England- which is near to where I currently live. It was December of 2016 and I had just that afternoon gone to see Rogue One: A Star Wars Story at the local movie theater with my kid brother. We had a few minutes before our ride home would be ready to meet us, and so we decided to hit up this small indie store that sells DVDs, CDs and such for a discounted price. There is a small section of books and I went over to check them out as we enjoyed the warmth the store offered us from the frigid outdoors. By the time our ride had come I was leaving Fopp with three books under my arm. They each cost five pounds- which is pretty damn good for a book these days. My purchases were as follows: Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Martian Time Slip by Philip K. Dick, and The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe. Back in the day I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy. I considered it my primary genre and would now and then dip into the classics of literary fiction for the purposes of gaining some knowledge of what I then considered to be the “essence” of something timeless; the craft and structural engineering of writing about the human condition. I read books like Dune by Frank Herbert and I wrote what my grandma called “space stories”. But then around the age of 18 or so, I abandoned science fiction altogether. I shed myself of it like a rotting carapace and never looked back. I focused exclusively on non-genre fiction and developed a particular worship for the works of Literary Realism. Why this sudden metamorphosis occurred I don’t really know, but perhaps no book was more influential on me- and more indicative of my new literary appetite- than Henry Miller’s outrageously debauched (and horrifically mistitled) novella Quiet Days in Clichy. It’s a fictionalized memoir of the author’s days as a struggling writer in Paris- and I won’t go too much into it here- but my days spent reading it on the bus I took to college marked the event horizon so to speak, of my abandonment of science fiction. Several years later and it is Christmastime 2017. There is a change in the winds. In recent months I have been craving some science fiction. I bought this book and Martian Time Slip in December but I didn’t start reading them right away. No, my return to reading science fiction actually came in the audio book version of Robert A. Heinlein’s Starman Jones– which I decided was a better use of my insomnia than watching endless videos of Shaqtin’ a Fool and Zero Punctuation on Youtube. I have taken a much more disciplined approach to reading recently (a subject that, perhaps, deserves its own blog post). In short, I found that being in a constant and continuous state of reading helps to keep me fulfilled and to keep the gnawing mongrels of anxiety at bay. The most effective and enjoyable way of achieving this, I discovered, was to share my reading adventures and keep myself accountable to an online blog. And that is the long version of how I ended up reading Gene Wolfe last week!
Six-limbed lobotomites, cannibalistic aborigines, & those robobrain things from Fallout. What’s not to like?
I took the time, before reading, to look over the introduction and the little bio they have for the author. What struck me straight away was that Gene Wolfe was an industrial engineer by trade. In fact, during the 1960s he developed the machine that cooks Pringles and ensures their hyperbolic paraboloid curvature. So I wondered for a minute if I might be in for one of those heavily scientific, hardboiled science fiction novels. But this was not so. I encountered much more scientific theory in Heinlein’s Starman Jones– in which every action was preceded by a paragraph of explanation. The descriptions of space travel- however dated they may seem to modern readers- I remember were very intricate. The Fifth Head of Cerberus felt like the opposite approach. Robot prison guards passed by without any exposition- and I liked it. There was something fleeting about Wolfe’s insights into the world he created, and there was no assumption on the part of the text that we wanted even the slightest clue into the more superficial details of its inner workings. Starcrossers are repeatedly referred to as being the primary mode of interplanetary transport, but since the specifics of their engines are a vestigial element to the story, Wolfe doesn’t waste our time going on about them. This brings me to what, in a nutshell, The Fifth Head of Cerberus is about. Well for starters, it’s actually three stories that coalesce thematically. When I first got it, I expected it to be a singular plot with three overlapping perspectives. I then learned, after finishing the first novella, from which the book derives its title, that it had been published a year or so earlier in Orbit 10, an anthology edited by one of SF’s legendary grandfathers- Damon Knight. After being advised to expand upon this novella, Wolfe then added the two other stories that make up the book. It is true that each story is a tight, self-contained narrative and that each stands up on its own. However, having now finished the book, it is clear that it can be read very much as a cohesive whole. While there may not be any long passages pertaining to quantum physics and futuristic mechanics, this is not by any means a casual or an easy read. It’s a book of absolutely exorbitant depth and boundless complexity. Many people who enjoy Wolfe confess to having read the book several times. Online there exist forums in which readers debate the subtext and the mysteries within. I think the best adjective to describe the book is “layered” . There’s a plethora of subtle repetitions and motifs that contribute to the creation of mysteries that will occupy the reader’s thoughts long after he or she has put the book down. And that’s what made reading this novel such a rewarding experience for me. Although it may be slow in some parts- and for sure it is not a “page turner”- the payoff at the end is very fulfilling. I could spend hours going over the little details hidden away in this book, or reading through the analyses of others in internet forums. I enjoyed this book. It was a sinister, disturbing narrative of two French-inflected human colony planets that orbit each other. It’s crazy imaginative and just plain crazy.
The Fifth Head of Bookworm
I will assume at this point that those reading this section are Wolfe fans and those who, like me, are interested in getting the interpretations of other readers upon completing the book. It’s definitely one of those layered stories- like Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury– that the instant you finish it you start mashing your thumbs into the Google search bar of your phone just to see if you “read it right”. I wanted to know what I was missing- since there is no way, as a first time reader of Wolfe, having read the book only the once, and having to power through some of the less thrilling sections, that I was going to pick up every little nuance of this absolute behemoth of creativity. And of course, there’s the fact that the mystery of the fate of the aboriginal Annese and the true identity of the John Marsch character are never explicitly revealed at the end. This is a novel in which the answers are given to you piecemeal throughout in little clues and hints. It is a novel which punishes the lazy reader. The completion of the novel requires a very active role on the part of the reader, insofar that the inferences made by the reader are a crucial element of the story. Therein lies the genius of Wolfe, and this, I think, is why I have seen his fans refer to him with such adoration as to liken him to the Michael Jordan of his field. To Wolfe fans, he is the GOAT, and I have seen no shortage of superlatives attached to his name. I’m not gonna go that far, but I will agree that you’d be hard pressed to find a science fiction novel that outmatches it in literary ambition. We marvel at the artful structure of the book and rightly so. The piece of evidence I have seen most fans draw attention to as proof of Marsch’s being an “abo” is the wound he sustains in “V.R.T” by the feral cat, which every time the narrator brings it up seems more and more like an excuse for his shabby handwriting- a trait firmly established earlier in the story being the natives’ poor grasp of hand tools. Of course there’s a mountain of other clues that reinforce this, such as the long gap in the Doctor’s journal after the boy supposedly dies. However this whole discussion is rendered somewhat obsolete by Gene Wolfe’s confirmation in an interview that a “Shadowchild” had replaced John Marsch. I think- at least based on my own reading of the text- that the version wherein the Annese are NOT extinct and where the real John Marsch died in that gorge in the outback is the only real conclusion we are encouraged to reach, as opposed to the more psychological interpretation that examines the events as a kind of hallucinatory parable. The doubt, I believe, is meant to reflect the uncertainty of the characters within the book. In my opinion (let me know if you agree!) the narrator in the closing stages of the book is not certain himself that he is either John Marsch or the beggar’s son. I have seen other readers mention the way several passages at the end seem to mesh together, dreamlike, and it becomes hard to determine whose head we are in. Although I believe that the beggar’s boy has replaced John Marsch, I don’t think he is knowingly deceiving those around him. I think he believes that he is Marsch, and that we see him struggle with his sense of identity during the latter stages of his solitary confinement in the Citadel. The novel had likened the Annese to being kind of half-animal in the second novella, and later in “V.R.T” the narrator even describes himself as such when he pens his legal defense. Therefore, my interpretation of the boy’s shapeshifting process is that it is an instinctive, natural one, rather than some cunning scheme. Maybe I’m wrong. The real mystery that persists, I believe, is whether the beggar’s son murdered John Marsch in that gorge or whether the death was an accident. I have to admit that the boy’s earlier declaration that he would love to be an anthropologist (and the Doctor’s informing him of the many years of work it would take) does offer some hint of premeditation. What do you think?
I don’t know if it is so easy to give a numerical score to something as nuanced as a novel, but just for fun I’ll go ahead and give it a rating. On a scale of one to ten, one being 50 Shades of Puke and ten being Faulknerian perfection, I’d give it an 8.7! Definitely worth your time if you like unconventional science fiction mysteries!