Rereading Gene Wolfe’s “The Fifth Head of Cerberus”

Gene Wolfe is one of the most intelligent, albeit ambiguous in effect, writers in science fiction (and fantasy). He was an industrial engineer, famously for having partly invented the machine that made Pringle potato chips, before he began writing in the late 1960s. He had early successes, including the short story “The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories” in 1970, which famously lost the Nebula Award to “no award”. (You can look it up.)

Aside from that story and a couple others, Wolfe’s earliest big hit was the novella “The Fifth Head of Cerberus”, published in 1972, in the anthology Orbit 10, edited by Damon Knight. Wolfe later that year published a “novel”, The Fifth Head of Cerberus [cover image and link at right], which added two additional novellas to the first one, associated stories that played off the first one to achieve a more complex vision. Not exactly a novel; a trilogy of novellas that provided different perspectives on a common theme and subject.

The original novella, by itself, is still regarded as one of the best SF novellas of all time. As I’m reading through classic short fiction these past few months, it’s fascinating to revisit this story (some 40 years since I first read it!), since it both challenges and appeals to my current concerns, on this blog.

Here’s a rough summary [spoiler alerts, obviously].

The story is a first-person account by a young boy, whose name is avoided, who lives with his brother David in a big house in the city of Port-Mimizon, on a planet that has a sister planet, Sainte Anne. The opening line:

When I was a boy my brother David and I had to go to bed early whether we were sleepy or not.

Wolfe is a sophisticated, well-read writer, and this opening, as many have noted, is an obvious allusion to the opening of Marcel Proust’s A Remembrance of Things Past [in the traditional English translation]. Which isn’t gratuitous; it’s a nod to a theme in this story about memory.

The narrator and his brother have a tutor, Mr. Million, a robot who glides on wheels and whose screen displays a face like the narrator’s father’s. It develops that this large house is a brothel.

Wolfe’s narrative is brilliant, as it is in so many other stories, in that the main character describes his surroundings at face value, leaving it up to the reader to understand, or not, and make value judgments, or not.

This technique recurs through most if not all of his works, IIRC; a first person narrator, or at least central point of view character, from whose point of view we are told the story. And almost always, there is an *underlying* story, a ‘real’ story, that the pov character does not necessarily understand, but which Wolfe counts on the reader to being able to deduce.

Some readers have seen this as trickery, but today as I write, I think perhaps this is a very honest way of telling a story. Because all stories are about the experience of one person in the life that they lead. The ‘third person omniscient’ narrative of many authors is in some sense a fantasy; it does not replicate the real world experience of actual people.

It is difficult to find a paragraph in any of Wolfe’s works that is not both precise and poetic. I will page through this story and quote a paragraph almost at random:

This, then, was my world at seven of our world’s long years, and perhaps for half a year beyond. Most of my days were spent in the little classroom over which Mr Million presided, and my evenings in the dormitory where David and I played and fought in total silence. They were varied by the trips to the library. I have described or, very rarely, elsewhere, I pushed aside the leaves of the silver trumpet vine occasionally to watch the girls and their benefactors in the court below, or heard their talk drifting down from the roof garden, but the things they did and talked of were of no great interest to me. I knew that the tall, hatchet-faced man who ruled our house and was called “Maitre” by the girls and servants was my father. I had known for as long as I could remember that there was somewhere a fearsome woman — the servants were in terror of her — called “Madame”, but that she was neither my mother nor David’s, nor my father’s wife.

The narrator is summoned to a series of late-night interviews with his otherwise remote father, who dubs him “Number Five”, and who subjects him to drug-induced episodes to impress the father’s own episodes of memory. He meets his aunt, the “Madame” of the establishment, who tells him about “Veil’s Hypothesis”, the idea that the aboriginal natives of the sister planet Sainte Anne are perhaps shapeshifters, who killed off the earliest human settlers on these planets and took their places. (This is a reality-check hypothesis worthy of Philip K. Dick. What is real? How do we know who we really are?)

And then there is a visitor to the house, an anthropologist, Dr. Marsch, supposedly from Earth, who has come to investigate the rumor about the Sainte Anne aborigines. Near the end of the novella, the narrator accuses Marsch of being an abo from Sainte Anne–an imposter.

The reveal [again, spoiler alert], is that the narrator is a clone of his father, in fact the fifth generation clone of a series of ancestors [thus the title], generated to understand his family’s place in this society.

But why? For what purpose? When I first read this story, some 40 years ago (I have not re-read it again until now), I was left with the impression that the clone/guardian theme was in place to *protect* the human society on this planet from the aboriginal danger on Sainte Anne. Rereading it now, I don’t think that idea is in the text. Rather, I gather from various commentaries, the idea of the abos having replace humanity, or not, is deliberately left ambiguous. Which may or may not be clarified by the two subsequent novellas in the book of the same title.

The one exegesis I have at hand of this story is by Joan Gordon, author of a thin Starmont Press paperback about Gene Wolfe’s works, published way back in 1986. She has a whole chapter about this novella, and book. She focuses on the idea that the story depicts a family that has stagnated, that the reason for the repeated clones is to try to understand the family’s influence (or lack thereof) in society. The father, through the late-night drug sessions, tries to remove any aspect of individually from his clone, the narrator, “Number Five” — in order to replicate his own experience in life. Here is where the theme of memory is cued. Gordon goes on to explain how the novella’s theme of denying human individuality is underscored by small details in the text: the address of the house at 666… as one of several clues about what the author implies is evil, principally the denial of human individuality.

And I can appreciate this interpretation. The human motivation of parents is to reproduce exactly their life experience in their children; they don’t want them to learn, exactly, or to change; they’d rather overlay their children’s experiences with their own traditions. Religion! Thus the scenes in which Number Five’s father is instilling him with video and drug-induced impressions of the father’s own experiences.

This is a powerful theme, and certainly brings a closure to this novella. Yet I am still wondering… was I reading too much in to the idea that the generations of clones was built with the intent of protecting the colonists from the abo invaders?

Setting this aside for the moment, here is my take away, as Joan Gordon suggests. In Gene Wolfe — I think in general in his works, and not just in this one story — it’s not about absolute understanding. It’s about living with uncertainty, and ambiguity. And that’s a value that, in fact, is aligned with science and humanist values, more than the certain values of religions.

OTOH, it’s well known that Wolfe is a dedicated Catholic, and that his faith infuses his works, especially his grand four volume The Book of the New Sun, widely regarded as one of the great extended SF novels of all time.

Does this mean I am misinterpreting his works? Or more likely, as I’d like to think, that he is a skillful enough writer to leave his works ambiguous enough to allow themselves open to multiple interpretations?

And yet—I gather that Wolfe does have very specific ideas behind his works, yet likes to leave them ambiguous for readers. Is this a tease, or a challenge? Or an invitation to investigate, and explore? I remember that many SF readers in the ‘70s, when Wolfe’s best works were published, were frustrated and dismissive of his works. His is not the same style of story-telling as the plain-speaking texts of Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein. And that is why Wolfe is perhaps a prime example of how science fiction can be literature, and not just a mere pulp genre.

For a perspective on Wolfe, by Kim Stanley Robinson, see his introduction to The Very Best of Gene Wolfe, at this NYRSF link.

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