Review of The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe

I don’t feel qualified to give a comprehensive review of this book. It is only the 2nd book of Gene Wolfe’s I’ve read, and the first I’ve come close to understanding. 

 I think this must be a better book to begin with though, than his Book of the New Sun series. I am a big fan of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth series and Wolfe’s is similar in setting but not in tone. You get a lot of humor in Vance, and almost no humor in Wolfe – so far. Or at least the humor partakes of the same dense opacities as the rest of the book’s literary ingredients. It is hard to tell what is meant as truth or misconception, and many readers have found this to be part of the fun.

Wolfe ties together many deep themes, wild characters, and disarming alien descriptions alongside droll pseudo-reminiscences. He touches on Imperialism, genetic modification, interplanetary travel, sibling relationships, folklore, shapeshifting creatures, ghosts and many more intriguing elements, but only through hints and by undermining your expectations. The plot is only discoverable beneath a riptide of otherworldly richness, of bizarre, hallucinogenic revelations, and if swallowed half-digested and barely understood, it can still be incredibly interesting.

When the story flips to the perspective of the aborigines, I was treated to an intense array of breathtaking surprises. The reader is left questioning who is the actual protagonist of this story, and who’s version of reality can be believed.

The two nearby planets the author describes each have their own philosophy, anthropology, and history, and in the famous Wolfian fashion, none of it is readily discernible, except through subtle insinuations. This puzzle-narrative technique ceaselessly sabotages the reader’s attempts at interpretation. Like the characters themselves, the reader is forced to undergo an investigation of the facts provided, and is left to draw their own conclusions.

The author might have split up the book into 3 separate novellas, but that would not have aided much in how approachable they are. Taken together they enlarge upon their interior modus operandi in unique ways. This extraordinary interaction within the texts may never have been incorporated into literature before or since. I will have to examine his New Sun series at length to see if it lives up to his layered accomplishment with “Cerberus.”

The intelligence of the structure, the imaginative setting, and the elegant descriptions are enough to impress any fan of science fiction. If you do not mind Wolfe’s trickery, I think that there is a great deal of enjoyment to be gained from this book. Keep in mind this was written very early in his career, and he had only begun to experiment…

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