OR: The Fifth Head of Cerberus

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #21:-

THE FIFTH HEAD OF CERBERUS

Gene Wolfe

Millennium pb, 252pp, £6.99

Wolfe’s second book, originally published in 1972 and now reissued as part of the SF Masterworks series, marked a quantum leap on from his debut novel Operation Ares and, with its heady fusion of SF and Gothic romance, in many ways foreshadowed his epic Book of the New Sun.

It consists of three novellas with a common backdrop, the twin worlds of Sainte Anne and Sainte Croix, colonised originally by French speakers who were then themselves subdued by a later wave of invaders. There are also legends concerning the native inhabitants of Sainte Anne, according to some shape changers who killed the first colonists and took on their identities. Wolfe gives us a fascinating and diverse culture, one in which advanced science and slavery co-exist, then uses it as a backcloth for an investigation of the nature of individuality and identity.

While they inform and reinforce each other the three novellas, linked by the character of the anthropologist John V. Marsch, are quite different in form and content. The title story, perhaps the most straightforward, tackles the familiar SF theme of cloning, but in an entirely novel way. A Story by John V. Marsch, ostensibly a work of fiction but perhaps not, tells of an encounter between the original Annese and the first colonists, written in a style reminiscent of Amerindian folklore and cleverly blurring the boundaries between history and myth. Finally in the Kafkaesque VRT Marsch is arrested as a spy by the Sainte Croix authorities, and an officer attempts through haphazard examination of his documents, notebooks, tapes etc, to determine what is to be done with him, but slowly an ambiguous picture is built up, one that calls into question Marsch’s very humanity.

This is a complex and subtle work of fiction that will reward more than one reading.

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