The Fifth Head of Cerberus

This is the book built from the story that began Gene Wolfe’s tenure as one of the greatest stylists of SF for the last 37 years. It might also be one of the most widely critically examined works in all of SF, so probably this won’t add much new to what’s already been said about it.

The structure is unusual, three related stories, revolving around the history of the neighboring planets Saint Croix and Saint Anne, and the fate of their natives (if there ever were natives) following colonization. The stories are presented as separate novellas, told from three points of view. In each case, we have an unreliable narrator to compound the mysteries of the story. In the final segment, its not even obvious whether the narrator is the off-planet scientist he claims to be, or whether it is a doppelgaenger who has replaced the scientist.

Like Wolfe’s later work, Fifth Head gives the impression of so much finely intertwined detail that mere mortals can’t hope to discover all of the interconnections; which hasn’t stopped the internet hive mind from trying. I don’t myself try to unthread all of the detail, but the fact that its there gives the book a satisfying feeling of completeness, and allows it to be mysterious without being simply mystifying.

This book also shows the characteristic Wolfe style of veiling SF elements behind archaic language and brutal social conditions; that is, presenting technology as his characters see it, just one more mysterious aspect of their world. In this, the book is probably even more reflective of today than of the time when it was written. Then, an average car nut, for example, could expect to understand how to rebuild his carburetor; today, a car nut has little chance of repairing a computerized fuel injection system, and millions of people use Facebook without having or needing much understanding of the underlying mechanisms of the internet.

All in all, a fantastic book, and one that hasn’t lost any of its presence or mystery with age.

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