Sci-Fi Book Discussion: The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe

created: 6 May 2019; status: first thoughts on paper; reviewers: none

The Fifth Head of Cerberus is the title of both a novella and a single-volume collection of three novellas, written by American science fiction and fantasy author Gene Wolfe, both published in 1972.

For April 2019’s Sci-Fi book club, I read my first Gene Wolfe book. I really like science fiction, but I often get stuck reading one author or theme and forget to branch out for months or years at a time. I’m not sure I had even heard of Wolfe until Jack mentioned this book a few months ago, and we chose it before the author’s passing in mid April. This book club, while tending a little more literary than science fiction, has been great to inject some variety into my reading, hear some chatter about what others are reading (even the books that don’t make the shortlist for the club), and to pick apart what we find interesting. I often find that a few specific aspects of a book will resonate deeply with me, and it’s generally difficult finding other people with matching interests.

I read The Fifth Head of Cerberus on Kindle, which was very handy as I was able to go back and look up character and place names to get a better understanding of how the three stories fit together. It was a rather brief read, and I was fortunate to be able to read it in three sittings of an hour or three each, so that I could digest each of the novellas separately. It’s short enough that it could be re-read in one (dedicated) day, which might be an interesting way to get a deeper grasp of the connections between the three stories and a better understand the underlying world, but I don’t think it’s necessary. #todo: get a paperback copy and flip through it for an hour or two to synthesize my understanding of the book

I read the Sci Fi Masterworks edition, and didn’t realize that the introduction would have significant spoilers. Luckily I noticed while skimming, and was only spoiled as to the plot of the first novella, and not to the broader question of identity as it relates to the second and third.

Exploring Identity and Humanity, with a side of exploitation (Spoiler Warning!)

Wolfe presents some very interesting scenarios around identity and humanity, in several different contexts.

In the first novella, this context is cloning: if the narrator (called “Number 5”) is the successful outcome of his father’s rigorous cloning experiments, is he a unique individual? It’s heavily implied that both his “grandfather” and “father” were able to control nature (via controlling for dominant genes in the cloning process) and nurture (by careful environmental design and drug-induced probing of memory and behavior). Number 5’s acts as predicted by his father in the culminating scene of the first novella, and Marsch (n.b. inasmuch as the protagonist of V.R.T. is Marsch) later states in his notes that they were essentially the same man.

The question of Number 5’s identity is further complicated by the presence of other, sometimes grotesque outcomes of his father’s cloning experiments who are scattered around the city as lobotomized slaves. They have been rendered less than human by chemical and surgical means only because they determined to be less than perfect by his father. This makes clear the threshold for what his father considers humanity: that only himself, and by extension his perfect clone, is fully human. What then of his natural son and of Number 5’s aunt?

The first novella presents just a slice of the broader question of identity that underlays the second and third: who are the aboriginal residents of the twin planets, are they human, and does it matter?

#todo: touch on identity and humanity in the second and third novellas

#todo: look deeper at the questions of colonization / humanity / aboriginal vs. earthling across all three novellas

Some interesting themes identified elsewhere

Jack’s Goodreads review characterizes the novellas as a mystery that remains unresolved to the end, without the clean exposition that your suspicions were correct. I’m curious to learn tonight what further subtleties he saw in the book that go beyond what I picked up on my first read.

#todo: re-read and synthesize from other reviews:

One Comment

john_henry May 8, 2019 Reply

#todo: revisit this after book club and see what I’d like to add from our discussion.

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