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“The Fifth Head of Cerberus” by Gene Wolfe

So far, I have not really written reviews of any novels on my blog. Thinking about it, I am not sure that I have enough to say about most novels that would make a post worthwhile. That could change.

I’m driven to write about “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” by Gene Wolfe, a 1972 “novel” on Charles Scribner’s Sons. At the same time, I’m going to split hairs by stipulating that this is a collection of related stories and not a novel. I’ll blog about fix-up novels eventually, but I don’t consider this a fix-up novel either.

I own the 1976 Ace paperback, used and rather worn, from Recycle Bookstore in San Jose. I assume I read it after I bought it in the late 1970s, but after 45 years I mostly remember the title and that it is an important book by Gene Wolfe. Here is my modest Wolfe collection, as I mostly read Wolfe from the library.

According to Wolfe’s story in the Afterword to “The Fifth Head of Ceberus” novella in “The Best of Gene Wolfe: A Definitive Retrospective of His Finest Short Fiction” (a 2009 Tor collection, he sold the novella to Damon Knight for “Orbit 10” first, and then presented the story at the Milford Writer’s Conference because he wanted to hear what others thought. Larry McCaffery interviewed Gene Wolfe extensively in Science Fiction Studies, #46 November 1988 for Depauw University. In that interview, Wolfe discussed how the book came about from the novella:

Wolfe’s novella “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” was published in the “Orbit 10” anthology, February 1972, Damon Knight editor, G. P. Putnam’s Sons.

In April 1972, Charles Scribner’s Sons published the Wolfe “novel” “The Fifth Head of Cerberus“, which added the related novellas “‘A Story’ by John V. Marsch”, and “V. R. T.” to “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” novella. I believe all 3 novellas were written before the first was published.

I think “The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories“, a short story in Damon Knight’s “Orbit 7” anthology and a 1971 Nebula finalist for short story was perhaps the first great Wolfe story. However, “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” was a 1973 Hugo, Locus and Nebula finalist for the novella, and was a bigger deal that focused even more attention on Wolfe.

I had owned “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” book for decades, but remembered very little about it.

Upon checking my Book Database, I last read it in 2001. My overall rating was “Very good”, and my comment was “Very interesting, and surprising, trio of stories of life on another world – very literate”. In hindsight, I had sure missed that two worlds were involved.

I was not planning to review the book, but I had reread “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” novella twice in the last two years, first for the Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction Facebook group and recently in “The Best of Gene Wolfe: A Definitive Retrospective of His Finest Short Fiction“, and my last read changed my opinion of the story, to 4.1/5, or “Superlative”. I had read “V. R. T.” last year, for the Chicon 8 epistolary speculative fiction panel (it is!), and thought it was “Great”, at 3.8/5. I finally decided last week to read (or reread) “”A Story’ by John V. Marsch“, as I was getting fairly close to having reread the whole book recently, and I was curious.

I finished “‘A Story’ by John V. Marsch” a few days ago. I did not find it as interesting as the other two novellas, and rated it 3.7/5, or “Very good”.

The Fifth Head of Cerberus” has been fairly well reprinted as a novella. “‘A Story’ by John V. Marsch” has been reprinted once as a novella, in the 1994 Kim Stanley Robinson anthology, “Future Primitive: The New Ecotopias” (Tor). “V. R. T.” has been reprinted only once as a novella, in German, extracted from the German translation of “The Fifth Head of Cerberus”. The book “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” has been reprinted periodically, as recently as 2022 by Tor.

Looking at reprints and awards, there is a lot more attention, discussion and remembering of “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” novella than the other two novellas from the book.

My overall average rating for the three novellas, from the story ratings of 4.1, 3.8 and 3.7, is a “Great” 3.87/5. I think my rereading of “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” novella drove both a better understanding and greater appreciation of that story, which produced a change from “Very good” to “Great” for me. I will admit that I am not enough of a Gene Wolfe fanatic to reread “V. R. T.” or “‘A Story’ by John V. Marsch” again.

Some general and specific thoughts about Gene Wolfe, his writing and fiction, and these 3 novellas:

  1. I was lucky enough to meet Gene Wolfe briefly at ConJose in 2002, where we were both waiting for a hallway blockage to abate. We chatted for several minutes as one does. I expressed that I was a fan of his, and hopefully mentioned some of his works that I liked without getting into those I did not like. He seemed very nice and charming, and I was excited to meet him. This positive interaction probably drove me to read more of his fiction, but it did not eliminate some of the issues I have with some of his work.
  2. I have mixed feelings about his fiction. I feel he is one of the premier writers of speculative fiction over his career. I have just loved some of his work, but I have really disliked some of it to the point of not wanting to finish that work.
  3. I have noticed that he is a real fan of unreliable narrators and other such complex narrative elements that can require reading a piece of fiction at least two or three times to have a clue, maybe, about what the hell is really going on. His 1995 novella “The Ziggurat” is another example of this. While I like a well written story and I can enjoy fiction with many elements of a more literary style as long as the plot and characters are good, there are times when I just don’t want to work that hard to understand or appreciate one of his works. This is probably a combination of my capabilities as a reader, personality and interests in life. Perhaps if I was an academic or had a BA or MA in English or Literature I might have a different opinion, but perhaps not.
  4. Looking at “V. R. T.” and “‘A Story’ by John V. Marsch”, there are very substantial issues with unreliable narrators and having a clue about what is actually happening in these stories. I don’t think I ever actually understood all of what was going on, and I don’t want to reread them enough to figure it out. For all of that, I enjoyed reading “V. R. T.” much more than “‘A Story’ by John V. Marsch”.
  5. There is no doubt that these 3 novellas are related, are set in the same solar system, and all relate in some way to the humans who came from Earth and the aboriginals native to at least one of the two worlds the stories are set in who might or might not exist and might or might not have ever existed.

I’m glad I reread Wolfe’s book “The Fifth Head of Cerberus”. It’s very possible and even likely that some of my interpretations of and conclusions about these three stories are incorrect. This is on both me and Gene Wolfe. I’ll probably reread “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” novella someday, but I doubt I’ll reread the other two novellas. Your experience might vary.

Detailed reviews/comments on the stories. Spoilers all over:

The Fifth Head of Cerberus“, a novella from the “Orbit 10” anthology, February 1972, Damon Knight editor, G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 2021 Read: This is where I show my shallowness as a reader of SF. For me, this leans rather more towards the literary end of SF. Great writing here, interesting characters and setting, and an interesting story set on the planet of Sainte Croix, and a very gradual (but hinted) reveal on the clones. I did enjoy “Mr. Million”, who is revealed to be patterned after the “grandfather” of the characters. At the same time, I found the story dragging a bit. I found the drugged interviews rather opaque in terms of why they were happening, although I agree that the search for identity was in play. This novella is definitely where Wolfe first showed me what a great writer he would be but the story is not among the best of all time for me. January 2023 Reread: I love the mention of “…The Mile-Long Spaceship, by some German)…”, a reference to the 1963 collection by Kate Wilhelm. story by. Followed shortly by”…a crumbling volume of Vernor Vinge‘s short-stories that owed it’s presence there, or so I suspect, to some long-dead librarian’s mistaking the faded V. Vinge on the spine for Winge.” This is fun because Wolfe took the time to insert works by his contemporaries that would have been shelved nearby, perhaps, including a then imaginary collection by Vinge. I also loved realizing this is an epistolary story, which I had forgotten, with the frame at the very end. Finally, I really loved this story more on what must be at least my third read over the last 50 years, twice in the last few years. I am upgrading my rating to 4.1, or “Superlative”. (From 3.7 or “very good”). It was a Nebula, Hugo and Locus finalist, and selected for “The Best Science Fiction of the Year #2” by editor Terry Carr (1973 Ballantine Books).

‘A Story’ by John V. Marsch“, a novella, published as part of Gene Wolfe’s “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” collection of related stories, Charles Scribner’s Sons April 1972. Read this month for the probably the second time since buying the paperback of “The Fifth Head of Cerberus”, 1976 Ace edition. Not a great story for me, but interesting to read and consider. The story of men who came to the world of Sainte Anne and encountered the shape shifting aborigines, with no clarity here or in “V. R. T.” as to which is which. I am not an expert, but I suspect the aborigines and their interactions with the world here have some resemblance to Australian aboriginals, and today you would have to consider cultural appropriation. Certainly, like “V. R. T.” and much Gene Wolfe, unreliable narrators abound. Rated 3.7/5, or “Very good”. Only reprinted once separately from the “novel”, in German, extracted from the German translation of the book.

V. R. T.“, a novella, published as part of “The Fifth Head of Cerberus”, April 1976. Read here perhaps the second time since buying the 1976 Ace edition of “The Fifth Head of Cerberus”. A definitely
very epistolary story, set on the same world of “Sainte Anne” as the novella “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” and in the same solar system as “‘A Story’ by John V. Marsch”. The frame is an official evaluating and interrogating a man being held for some unspecified crime, perhaps as a spy from the neighboring world. There are found materials, such as a box of artifacts, of interrogation tapes, diary entries, etc. It is very unclear if the material is based on interactions from the academic (anthropologist) who came to these worlds to research the aboriginals who may have lived there before humans came, or if perhaps a young man assisting the academic has taken his place or a shapeshifter, or what. Although I am not a big fan of unreliable narrators, this is a great story and I enjoyed the epistolary format of found materials. Rated 3.8/5, or “Great”. Reprinted once separately of the “novel”, in the 1994 Kim Stanley Robinson anthology, “Future Primitive: The New Ecotopias” (Tor).


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