The Fifth Head of Cerberus – A Review

productThe Fifth Head of Cerberus, by Gene Wolfe
When I walked into the Multnomah County Library a few days ago,I stumbled upon The Fifth Head of Cerberus, Gene Wolfe’s first novel, published in 1972. It had been over ten years since I read a Gene Wolfe book, and I had somehow passed this one by, so I decided to give it a go. I wasn’t disappointed.

Those who know me, know that I am a s-f fan. I’m not particularly enamored of the hard science variety of sci-fi. Nor do I particularly like that very popular sub-genre which features swashbuckling, castles and medieval fiefdoms set on other planets. But mostly, I like any good writing which explores social, political or philosophical issues with depth. At the top of my list is Ursula K. LeGuin, followed by Philip K. Dick (what is it with those Ks?), Ray Bradbury, William Gibson, Octavia Butler, and others, including Gene Wolfe. Wolfe is my exception to the ancient history on planet X type of sci-fi because his writing is just so damn good, so deep and complex, that I can’t put his books down once I’ve started.

This remarkable novel began as a novella in Damon Knight’s Orbit anthology. Consisting of three closely related stories, the book explores the subject of identity, particularly in terms of the relationship between colonialists and aboriginal people, and touches on post-colonial theory. I was particularly struck by how the stories resonated with my recent reading of Edouard Glissant and his ideas about “Creolism.”

The setting is the twin planets of St. Croix and Ste. Anne, settled by the French, and later defeated by English speaking Earthlings. St. Croix is the more settled planet which has an aristocratic society based on slavery. Ste. Anne is inhabited by small settlements, but still contains much wild and unexplored terrain. Officially, all the indigenous people have been subjugated on Ste. Anne. However, there is a theory, called Veil’s Hypothesis, which postulates that the original colonialist have been killed and taken over by aboriginal shapeshifters.

Wolfe’s books are never pat, or easy to understand, and require some work from the reader. Each story takes a different narrative approach, exploring the subtleties of identity from another perspective. This is not a light Twilight Zone type of cleverness, but an important novel with literary depth.

Highly recommended.

My rating: 5.0 stars