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"Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home."
- Anna Quindlen

Review: The Fifth Head of Cerberus, by Gene Wolfe

The Fifth Head of Cerberus: Three Novellas - Gene Wolfe

Note: Though I'm not spoilercutting this review, proceed with caution, especially if you're thinking about reading this book! The less you know about a Wolfe story when you begin, the more power it has to totally blow your mind, dude.

Ste. Anne and Ste. Croix. Twin planets orbiting a distant sun. Colonized by humans long ago, they are now populated by mysterious creatures that may or may not be human. Oh, they look like us and act like us and in every measurable way are clearly the descendants of those first settlers.


What happened to the mysterious aborigines of Ste. Anne? The intelligent native inhabitants were everywhere when humans first landed, according to dozens of reports. But after just a few hundred years, all trace of them has vanished. There are those who think they never existed at all. And there are those who have a different theory.

Some of the original reports claimed that the abos were shapeshifters. That they could mimic any form - animal, plant, or otherwise - so perfectly as to be completely undetectable. What if the abos started mimicking humans? What if they killed all the settlers and took their place? Are all the human colonists on Ste. Anne and Ste. Croix really descended from abos? If the aborigines had the ability to mimic humans perfectly, and if they lost the power to change shape over the generations, how could the colonists ever know who and what they really are?

This is just one of the ways this book fucks with the concept of identity. Consisting of three interconnected novellas, each one delivers a separate but thematically-related mindfuck. And each one is a mini-masterpiece, a perfect example of everything science fiction should be but rarely is: smart, complex, literary, unique, unforgettable.

In part I, "The Fifth Head of Cerberus", we read the memoirs of a man known to us only as Number Five, who grew up on Ste. Croix. At first, it's a typical account of childhood, with some standard science fiction embellishments - a robot teacher, a handicapped aunt who floats above the ground on an antigrav prosthesis. But things soon become very... strange, and as you read between the lines you start to get a picture of the bizarre freakshow that is this man's life. This story remains one of my all-time favorite pieces of fiction - it sucks you in and each page reveals something fascinating and horrifying.

Part II, " 'A Story,' by John V. Marsch", is the strangest of the three. Marsch is a character we first met in part I, an anthropologist from earth who has spent years on Ste. Anne researching the abos. This story is his reconstruction of abo life, either just before or several centuries after first contact with humans - depending on which characters you believe. It's a mythic, hallucinatory tale whose clues to the overall mystery are illusory - it is, after all, the creation of a character who doesn't know much more about the truth than we do... unless, of course, he does, which is where part III comes in.

"V.R.T." is possibly the biggest mindfuck of them all. Marsch is back on Ste. Croix, and imprisoned for the murder of a character from part I (wrongfully, as it happens, but the fascist government doesn't care much about that). The story is largely told through snippets of diaries, notes and interviews from Marsch's research on Ste. Anne, where he traveled with a young guide (initials V.R.T.) into the wilderness looking for evidence of abo civilization. In the end, only Marsch returns, the guide having died. Or is it Marsch that returns? V.R.T. may have been an abo, and he may have taken Marsch's place. The survivor himself doesn't know - is he V.R.T., mimicking Marsch so perfectly that he has no memory of the transition? Or is he Marsch, and mad?

At what point is a perfect imitation equivalent to the original anyway? At what point does the distinction between real and fake cease to have any meaning? Whether it's a clone trying to escape the fate of his previous iterations, or an entire society whose provenance may not be their own, or one man who can't tell if he's genuine or a perfect copy, on these twin planets nobody can be sure they are who they think they are.

Which makes me wonder - can we?




12 June 2011