The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I can’t keep beginning reviews of Gene Wolfe’s work with “one of the best books I’ve ever read” or “one of my favorite books of all time,” so I’ll begin instead with Ursula K. Le Guin’s blurb on the cover of my edition. She says that The Fifth Head of Cerberus is “a subtle, ingenious, poetic, and picturesque book; the uncertainty principle embodied in brilliant fiction.” I like that, especially the first part: this book is a subtle and ingenious puzzle, but it’s one clothed in poetic and picturesque language of the highest quality. So, yeah, I will go ahead and say it after all: one of my favorite books of all time.
The work is actually three separate novellas or novelettes. (I’m unsure of the word count, though the shortest, the middle one, is about sixty pages, while the final and longest is over one hundred.) I say separate, but they fit together like the pieces of a well-crafted and interlocking puzzle. Certain words or hints dropped in the first will only make sense after the final story is completed.
The stories take place on the twin worlds of St. Anne and St. Croix against a backdrop of colonialism, slavery, and (possible) genocide. The first story, set in a brothel in one of the cities of St. Anne, captures a rusticity and faded gentrification reminiscent of New Orleans. The first wave of settlers on St. Anne were French, but since then there’s been a war, and the setting (which spans much of the city) has a flavor of faded glory and isolation. The narrative centers around the narrator coming of age and his relationship with his brothel-master and geneticist father. Besides the science fiction elements, which remain subtle, the story is most striking in its tone– the mystery and mystique of an antique house filled with tall, silent women; the city and the slave market– all seen from the point of view of a child growing up and colored with by the dream-like perceptions of one who finds himself the subject of a years- (and perhaps generations-) long experiment.
There are deeper mysteries as well, perhaps only tangential to the first story but central to the second and third. The narrator of the first tale encounters one of these in the course of his childhood schooling, which is simply: what became of the aboriginal natives of St. Croix? There are theories that they did not die out but instead replaced the first wave of settlers and now masquerade as humans. Late in the story, the narrator encounters an anthropologist who has been on St. Croix and accuses him of being one of these native Annese. Yet this is not the riddle central to the first story, which reaches an oedipal conclusion involving cloning, entropy, and regeneration.
In the second story the scene shifts to St. Croix, ostensibly before the wave of French colonization. The narrative here straddles the boundary of history and legend in what seems a relatively straightforward account of the aboriginals on the eve of colonization. There’s a quality about it that makes me recall stories of the Dreamtime among Australian aboriginals, heightened by hints that the aboriginals can change form and the presence of the enigmatic Shadow Children– who may be the actual pre-French, original human settlers or perhaps the aboriginals who replaced them, depending on who is asking and when. This story concludes with the arrival of the new wave of colonists and the realization that a culture will be complete, inexorably lost.
Finally, the third story brings together the strands of the first two and picks up additional pieces in what I thought was the most effective of the trio (on this read). The narrative here is stitched together from interviews, journals, and interrogation recordings being sifted through by a bored official on St. Anne. You quickly come to learn that these are documents related to the case of the anthropologist we met in the first story. He traveled from Earth to St. Anne to attempt to document any surviving evidence regarding the fate of the aboriginal Annese, who have now all but disappeared. Here the aboriginals have the feel of the Fair Folk from European legend, and the blend of science fiction, folklore, and field research is rich, non-linear, and incredibly fun to read. The anthropologist heads into the wilderness in search of lingering aboriginals, certain events transpire, and he reemerges years later to travel to the university on St. Croix, where he is incarcerated as a spy.
Wolfe is doing multiple things with this particular story. There’s the unnamed official himself, flipping back and forth through the materials forming the narrative, slowly allowing us to re-create the events along with him. There’s the account of the anthropologist and his studies and his venture into the wilderness, which reads in places like a nineteenth-century travelogue, and then the 1984-esque accounts of him in interminable detention on St. Croix and subject to random and ominous interrogations. There’s commentary on colonialism and politics and slavery (which is ubiquitous on St. Croix), interviews with early colonists who may or may not have interacted with the aboriginals, and finally the puzzle itself of what happened to the Annese and what happened to the man who came to study them (which I think Wolfe gives us just enough in the second two stories to piece together).
It’s an incredibly gorgeous, subtle, brilliant, lovely book. This is the book that put Wolfe on the map, and if you like good storytelling and beautiful riddles, regardless of how you feel about science fiction, it should put him on yours.
Spoilers: Here’s my own answer to the riddle, in case you care. The first story is still largely inscrutable to me, but it’s pretty clear from the second and especially the third that by the time the anthropologist comes to St. Croix, he has been replaced by an aboriginal (specifically, the boy whom he hired as his guide into the wild). The Shadow Children are the original human colonists who came to the St. Anne, perhaps centuries before the French. They have dwindled until they’re almost a thing of legend to the aboriginals themselves, though their original coming influenced the Annese to take human form. When the French come, the first French colonists are indeed replaced by the Annese. (The narrator speaks of a war, which the French lost. Colonists of other nationalities come after this war, and the French survivors they encounter are actually the Annese.) Certain descriptions by early settlers of the “aboriginals” (who are seen as little better than animals and killed on sight) are prime example of Wolfe’s subtle treatment of horror and identity when you realize they are instead the remaining Shadow Children and indeed human.
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