I’ll be honest with you. I don’t get the love for Gene Wolfe’s stories. He’s a good writer and his stories – at least the ones I’ve read – have been engaging, but I wouldn’t rank them up there with the great science-fiction novels. I recently finished reading The Fifth Head of Cerberus, which is more of a collection of three novellas rather than a proper novel, and I finished it feeling let down.
For context, I’ve previously read his series, The Book of the New Sun, which follows the story of a novice torturer who travels the lands encountering other characters and, well, doing things. I can’t say he has adventures because a lot of what he does is mundane. He’s also an unreliable narrator, so I had to read between the lines to sort out what may be true and what may be lies.
In the end, while I found the series interesting, I didn’t find it compelling. I set it aside a few times because I was bored reading it.
It was a similar experience with The Fifth Head of Cerberus. I found each of the three stories interesting, but in the end, they weren’t memorable. Here’s a breakdown of each:
The Fifth Head of Cerberus
The title story is narrated by a young man who, as it turns out, is also an unreliable narrator. It’s a theme in many of Wolfe’s stories. The young man grows up in a high-end brothel with his brother and a distant, almost reclusive, father. At one point, the father gives the narrator the title of Number 5 and begins experimenting on both him and his brother using chemicals and psychological tests. Number 5 eventually begins to resent his father and lashes out.
This all takes place on one of two sister planets colonized by French-speaking colonials. They apparently wiped out the indigenous human-like life forms on the planet. But the twist is, did they really? The aboriginals (abos, in the story) were said to be shape-shifters and there’s a theory that they, the abos, actually overwhelmed the French colonists and assumed their identities. However, it’s just a theory that is mentioned in passing.
“A Story,” by John V. Marsch
This was my favorite story out of the three, although it doesn’t seem to directly tie into the other two. This one is more of a fable or myth that follows one of the original humanoid life forms on the planet, named Sandwalker, and follows him as he goes on a dream quest. Later, he eventually meets a young woman and her infant daughter, then is captured by a different tribe that is led by his long-lost twin.
Confused? It actually reads like an ancient myth, which I enjoyed, and feels as if it’s filled with metaphors. The very end of this story has a tie-in to the first and third stories. I could try to explain it more, but I feel this one needs to be read to be appreciated and I wouldn’t do it justice.
The third story follows John V. Marsch, who made an appearance in the first story and “wrote” the second one. In this final act, he is imprisoned as a suspected assassin. Parts of the story are told in first-person, so we have as much knowledge of what’s happening as John does. He is taken to prison and questioned repeatedly over months and possibly years. He has no way to mark the passage of time, which adds to the anxiety of his situation.
The story switches back and forth between John and a military officer who has been tasked with reviewing John’s case and determining if he should be released. The officer goes through a box of case materials that contain tapes of his interrogations, pages from his diary, and various other evidence.
The interesting thing about this story is how it pieces together John’s backstory from the fragments reviewed by the officer. It jumps back and forth between him and John, which at first can be disorientating, but eventually I got into the strange rhythm of the narrative.
In the end, I don’t feel like anything was resolved. Hence, my frustration. I read some reviews and assessments of the book and discovered, much like Book of the New Sun, it apparently requires repeated readings to decipher exactly what’s going on.
I’m not opposed to layered storytelling. The Name of the Rose is a fantastic novel that I loved reading, despite the many obscure references to medieval architecture, biblical literature, and archaic facts. But Wolfe’s reliance on the unreliable narrator and the need to re-read his stories multiple times takes the fun out of reading his stories. At least, it does for me. Your mileage may vary.
I can’t say I recommend The Fifth Head of Cerberus. It does have a lot of great reviews and is well-loved in the science fiction community. Give it a shot and see what you think.