Review – Wolfe, “The Fifth Head of Cerberus”

Gene Wolfe, “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” (1972) – I’m way, way behind on reviews. I finished this one a little while ago. By coincidence, I also listened to a podcast just now about how lousy overly-literal political metaphors in speculative fiction can be, and how good ones don’t belabor the point and get on with it. Well, this group of linked novellas, arguably the first major work of great scifi/fantasy “writer’s writer” Gene Wolfe, follows this post-dated advice. It’s less a metaphor for colonialism than a projection of a melange of colonial practices into humanity’s space-faring future. Those of you who have read Wolfe’s “Book of the New Sun” – which is an investment but well worth it – know that Wolfe makes intricate worlds with deep pasts, but does not dump them on the reader in inelegant chunks (like a certain book reviewer does in his bad attempts at fiction). His worlds unspool as his character discover them in the process of figuring out their own mysteries and living their lives.

I feel like I might be alone in this, but I enjoy the titular first story the best out of the three linked novellas. A man relates his boyhood on the colony world of Ste. Croix, one of a pair of inhabitable planets in a solar system settled by mostly-French colonists. At first grasp, the worlds of Ste. Croix and Ste. Anne resemble something like the Caribbean or Brazil, maybe with French-ruled Indochina mixed in. I don’t recall Wolfe specifically saying it was hot and humid on Ste. Croix but it feels that way anyway- a backwater, culturally static, strict hierarchies that let their hair down behind closed doors in various fucked up ways, a ruling class that prioritizes its control over the lower classes over its notional independence from outsiders. 

The narrator is a child of this ruling class… sort of. I don’t want to spoil it, but it turns out that the planters, merchants, and bordello-keepers (guess which one the narrator is raised by!) of Ste. Croix take the whole “reproduction of the ruling class” thing literally… so a lot of his tale is basically him figuring out his strange origins, without much in the way of reference to outside standards of normality (i.e., ours) to act as a reference point. It takes some doing and Wolfe does it well. Among other things, he was an early linker of the possibilities of bio-tech and the creepy ethos of colonialism, a solid connection… you gotta figure a successful CSA would put a lot more chips on gene-editing than, say, spaceships…

All of the stories relate to the “extinct” “aborigines” of Ste. Anne and Ste. Croix. Legends describe them as shapeshifters. There’s even a theory that they killed the original French colonists and then just assumed their shapes! Who ever heard of such a thing? We get some interesting looks at what later generations of pedants would call “indigeneity” and the way the “gaze” of anthropologists, etc. reduce and make major mistakes about situations that colonizers have an investment in misunderstanding. There’s no big denouement- we never know for sure if the aborigines are still out there, let alone that they rebel against their human overlords, etc etc, like a simpler book might insist on. Instead it insists on lingering on how we know what we think we know about others, and what others see in us, and without the posturing and moralizing such questions usually come freighted with in contemporary speculative fiction. It’s hard to write much about it without giving too much away, and a lot of the fun is in Wolfe’s sublime prose and pacing, anyway. So go read it, if this sounds at all good to you. *****

Review – Wolfe, “The Fifth Head of Cerberus”

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