The Gem of Lost World Fiction
on Gene Wolfe's The Fifth Head of Cerberus
This is the first in what I hope will be a series of posts about Gene Wolfe’s fiction. I write “series” loosely. I hope to finish a good chunk of his output this year, and to blather about it in this newsletter when I get a chance.
In grad school, I once flogged an adventure novel to shreds. Not literally, which would have been kinder to the work at hand, but with the usual flails of anxiety-induced over-thinking endemic to beginning literary studies. She by H. Rider Haggard is a text worth studying, if you have to do that kind of thing, but most of my insights were already inked in the many, many pages of established criticism.
As with the majority of “lost world” fiction, She is a reservoir of colonial and post-colonial tensions, a kind of pre-Heart of Darkness jaunt. Some plucky English fellows descend on Africa, goes the plot, and discover an ancient, forgotten civilization. At the heart of this lost world is Ayesha, a living Queen and sorceress born 2,000 years ago. Oh, and she’s white. She’s more European than they are themselves, is the idea; more learned, more beautiful, even paler.She’s a sort of walking uncanny valley, a projection of the English explorers and the dangers of Victorian modernizations from an ominous outcropping of deep time.
Frankly, I love this gimmick, the discovery of ancient and advanced societies. I loved it in 7th grade when I first read Isaac Asimov’s Nightfall, and thought it was the redeeming wonder of that wacky Disney film, Atlantis. The aura of such tales feels Arthurian at times—the resplendent, unknowable past which threatens to return. Tolkien plays with this idea, obviously, but most “lost world” narratives follow the rules Haggard more or less invented in King Solomon’s Mines and She. We are not the first advanced peoples to walk the Earth, and we should be wary about why we’ve never heard of previous tech-savvy societies except at the moment we discover their tombs.
Many successive “lost world” stories are more explicitly sci-fi than Haggard’s tales, and most accelerate the premise: not only are we not the first advanced peoples to walk the Earth, humans have already walked other worlds. I’m both thrilled and ashamed to confess that the best stand-in for this sub-genre in my mind is probably Stargate, though Le Guin’s so-called Hainish cycle has a similar premise. Humans didn’t begin on Earth, and the humans we have yet to meet are vastly more advanced.
All of that is a necessary preamble to appreciating the absolute genius of Gene Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus. A collection of three novellas, The Fifth Head of Cerberus is a lost world outing to end all outings; it’s a synthesis and an innovation and a deconstruction and something whole in itself all at once. You by no means need any kind of lit background to love the book, or to be engulfed by it, to be clear. But on top of producing a moving, adventurous sci-fi triptych, Wolfe has also skinned, reanimated, and upgraded the lost world motif. I’d choose an even stronger analogy if I could.
What I’m about to write contains spoilers and if you haven’t read the book, these really are spoilers. The novellas are a braid whose final pattern deserves to be experienced without being ruined, so consider this a final warning. It’s also a final edict: read ye the works of Gene Wolfe. For anyone unlikely to pick up gorgeously labyrinthine sci-fi, however, read on!
Any attempt to regurgitate the plot of the three novellas that compose The Fifth Head of Cerberus is a fool’s errand. By which I mean, I’m a fool:
The first of the novellas is the titular piece, “The Fifth Head of Cerberus.” It was published as a standalone story in 1972, and I guess because he wasn’t satisfied with melting everyone’s faces just the once, Wolfe expanded on the world and themes in the collection’s subsequent entries, “‘A Story,’ by John V. Marsch” and “V.R.T.”
Let’s start with John Marsch, who is a fairly minor character in the first novella, but who becomes the central figure by the third piece. An anthropologist from Earth, he arrives on the planet of Sainte Croix to learn as much as he can about the original inhabitants of Sainte Croix’s sister planet, Sainte Anne. Sainte Croix and Sainte Anne are double planets which appear in each other’s sky. There’s no certainty about the Annese, the natives of Sainte Anne, either because they’ve been wiped out or because they were shape-shifters who’ve found a way to evade absolutely the colonial presence of the immigrant humans.
You read that correctly. Shape-shifters.
To be clear, this information is basically an aside in the “Fifth Head of Cerberus,” a smaller thread of the first novella’s much larger and stranger design. While it becomes the essential premise over the course of the three novellas, in “Cerberus” it’s almost a kind of uncanny aside, a deepening of that story’s primary weirdness: cloning. The narrator of “Cerberus” is a scientist on Sainte Croix recounting his childhood, which takes place under the care of a distant and horrifying father, also a scientist, who happens to run a brothel. The narrator and his brother David are mostly raised by a sentient robot called Mr. Million. The narrator is, of course, a clone.
Again, I’m only scratching the surface here. The density is part of the pleasure when it comes to Wolfe, but his writing is never a slog. A pleasure hike with a death-inviting drop to either side which requires your nerve and attention, maybe, but not a slog.
Marsch, in “Cerberus,” is largely used to flesh out Veil’s Hypothesis, a theory by the narrator’s aunt that the Annese were shapeshifters who took on human form and more or less assimilated themselves to death. They’re still here, still among us, but we can’t tell the difference. This literalization of cultural extinction by assimilation is typical of Wolfe, whose big ideas often feel allegorical even as they avoid actual allegory. Like Melville—yes, like Melville, with whom Ursula Le Guin wisely compares Wolfe—Wolfe always burdens his major symbols with so much meaning that the vessel creaks, cracks, and generates shards of insight in multiple directions.
The other theory regarding the native Annese is that they were humans plain and simple, and possibly space explorers from “Atlantis or Mu—or Gondwanaland, Africa, Poictesme, or the Country of Friends” who left Earth in a time when that history would have been told, surprise surprise, as a fable.
The second novella, “‘A Story,’ by John V. Marsch” is a myth about the native Annese. Despite being a work which lives within the world of the novellas, it’s a captivating piece on its own. We follow another young man in a harsh world, who is human (it seems) though this is a pre-human world. And look, if I’m summarizing too much it’s because the plot amazes me; it’s intricate and propulsive and dream-like—Wolfe is often dream-like given the unreliability of his narrators. The second novella is a kind of bildungsroman that both furthers the theory of the shape-shifting Annese and confuses it. Alongside the native Annese are the Shadow Children, who claim to be ancient humans that did in fact arrive from some forgotten world like Atlantis and then, I dunno, became addicted to a Sainte Anne drug that made them both god-like and imp-like (a second read might be necessary on this front). Or possibly the Shadow Children are the native Annese and the human boy is the descendent of Atlanteans, rather than a shape-shifter whose society took on the form of man and stayed that way.
Nothing is resolved, but the beauty of the myth is immense.
The third novella, “V.R.T,” builds on the question of the Annese by centering Marsch’s anthropological research. Marsch has been arrested and his captor is going through his field papers, not chronologically of course—by now you must have some sense that Gene Wolfe would never do that! We hear about Marsch’s time on Sainte Anne looking for the Annese, and his travels into the wilds with a boy, the titular V.R.T., who claims to be “half-abo.” I can’t break all the mirrors that Wolfe uses to erect his beautiful illusions, but the gist is that V.R.T. either dies in the wilds, or actually Marsch dies and the boy, being “half-abo” and of shape-shifting abilities, assumes Marsch’s identity.
The entire premise of the native Annese, then, is brought to bear on the identity of Marsch, and not simply Marsch in the last story. The reader has only ever seen Marsch after he’s left Sainte Anne; that is, after he’s either been replaced by V.R.T. or after he (another implication) killed V.R.T. That is the great gift of Wolfe in a nutshell, worldbuilding and mythmaking and sci-fi hijinks brought to the intimacy of one man in a cell recalling his life, his mother, the knocks of the prisoners around him, the codes of their misery which he can and can’t decipher. It’s bracing and remarkable.
It’s also no surprise that Gene Wolfe was an engineer. The plot is a mutually exclusive Rube-Goldberg machine. Either Marsch has been replaced by V.R.T. and one piece of information knocks into play the next so that we know something of the Annese—for one, that there were any native Annese at all—or Marsch is still Marsch and the Annese are cast even further into myth.
The mesmeric effect hinges, I think, on the second story. To cast doubt on the idea that he might be “half-abo,” or to assure his captors that he’s not insane, Marsch journals about wanting to write a novel. And we’ve read that novel, it’s the second entry of The Fifth Head of Cerberus. The question of Marsch’s identity, therefore, means the story of the Annese boy and the Shadow Children and his trials are either rooted in an oral history of actual Annese tradition (because it was written by V.R.T.) or they’re pure fiction. How you answer the question of Marsch’s identity is a domino that tilts in one direction only.
Wolfe so skillfully leads the reader into wondering whether Marsch is actually V.R.T. that the reader feels a sense of pride at getting there ahead of the text. This reader certainly did. That’s one of the gifts of all great writers, the ability to parcel out breadcrumbs of pleasure that reward the audience for watching the whole performance. I didn’t think the deftness of this revelation could be unraveled, but Marsch’s ending insistence that he isn’t “half-abo” is impossible to refute on the evidence of the text.
Even the most convincing section of his journal, which actually assumes the perspective of V.R.T outright, doesn’t get the job done. He writes as if his Marsch mask is falling away, recalling details of his mother with an intimacy that begs to be believed. Personally, I do believe, but the family details in question are ones the real Marsch learned during his field research. What should be the definitive clue is only ironclad as a moment of emotion, of almost spiritual revelation. But the case cannot be proved by close reading alone.
I’m sure, though, some Wolfe fan has made the attempt. Close reading a Wolfe work is a kind of mania for those who love him, and begets a kind of aggressive canonizing by his fans. We all revere him and will never believe he’s appreciated enough, and if you don’t see why, we’ll embalm you. The editors of the Gene Wolfe Wiki, for example, insist that “the only thing like The Fifth Head of Cerberus in traditional literature is Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.” Count me an ally because I think this judgment is exactly right. The way the novellas’ different voices both illuminate and darken what comes before is certainly Faulknerian, though Wolfe’s plotting is far stricter, however obscured by the POV’s horizon of knowledge. The first novella, after all, ends with the narrator, for reasons wholly unrelated to the actual question of the Annese, accusing Marsch of lying about being from Earth. “You are an abo, or at least half-abo,” the narrator insists, and leaves Marsch gaping.
I could go on forever, like how Wolfe implicates fairy folklore and the Greek gods into a text about twins and boyhood and the fear of the self as both derivative and fatally self-destructive. And let’s not forget where we started: the native Annese are “lost world” tensions made extreme, an uncanny other who out-humans the humans—who out-Haggard She. Here, though, the familiar unfamiliar reveals the way in which humans are still animal, are shapeshifters of a different and social (perhaps spiritual) type. We are not original, and yet we are still burdened with the singularity of human consciousness. How is it possible, the text conjures, to be surprised by our own bodies, these materials which are ourselves? As Wolfe puts it:
At least half of me is animal. The Free People are wonderful, wonderful as the deer are or the birds or the tire-tiger as I have seen her, head up, loping as a lilac shadow on the path of her prey. . . I have been looking in the [polished] bowl at my face, pulling my beard back as much as I could with my hands, wetting it from the sanitary pail so that I could see the structure of myself, and it is an animal’s mask I see, with a muzzle and and blazing animal eyes.
I’ll say it again: beautiful and moving and structured perfectly.
I love you all. Read Gene Wolfe.
It might be obvious at this point why literary critics have found so much to expound, and condemn, in the symbolism at play in She.
As Wikipedia will tell you, these tales were written when actual wonders of lost civilizations, like the “jungle-shrouded pyramids of the Maya,” were being discovered.
Prometheus was entertaining, dang it! And so was the awful/amazing Alien: Covenant!
I’d also call it a perfect rabbit-duck illusion in narrative form.
It should surprise no one that Wolfe was a devout Catholic.
I enjoyed this — as I enjoy all thoughtful commentary on this book. I enjoyed it even though I think I’ve busted open the plot — and even though I think the the theme is not the horror of colonialism but it’s folly (that the land colonizes the colonizers) — and also that it is a faerie story.
Anyway, my explanation is at the 1:04 mark HERE:
- James Wynn