No, 1972’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus is not the newest SFF book out there. But I’ve enjoyed other books by Gene Wolfe, and two of my coworkers insisted that I give this one a try. In fact, they very carefully told me nothing about it, so I have no preconceived ideas about the three novellas collected in this book.
The first tale, “The Fifth Head of Cerberus,” is a first person narrative. The unnamed protagonist is recalling his childhood on a Earth colony called Sainte Croix. He is the son of a wealthy man (a mad scientist, perhaps?) who runs a bordello. The boy lives upstairs with his brother David and is raised by a tutor/robot called Mr. Million. Besides their father, the other residents of the house include their Aunt and the demimondaines who service the house’s customers. The boys are kept out of sight, spending most of their time in their attic room or away in the city’s Library, where they are educated and drilled on all manner of subjects by Mr. Million. This genteel-sounding world is shot through with unexpected barbarity though: slavery is not only permitted on the planet, but seems very common. As young boys making their way to the library, they walk through a town square where slaves intended for playing sports or for a variety of other services are bought and sold. Daughters of the genteel classes might as easily be sold off as married off in order for their birth family to gain money or political power. As the narrator grows older, his father begins to take an interest in him. He calls his son to come to his laboratory late at night, giving him tests and ultimately drugging the young man to make him talk and to induce visions. Night after night the examinations continue, until one day the young man realizes that he is beginning to lose time. He wakes up in the middle of the day and can’t remember anything he did since he was on his father’s lab table.
I hate to give the ending of this story away because there are some very satisfying surprises in store for the reader. My friends know me well: I haven’t met a story with an unreliable narrator that I haven’t liked, and boy howdy, we definitely have one of those here! Between its lovely prose and its unreliable narrator, the title story in the book held my interest right to the end.
I’ve only just begun the second novella in the book. It appears to be a story or possibly a transcription of a myth written by John Marsch, an anthropologist who appears at the bordello door one night in the first novella. I don’t really have an idea where this one is going, but who cares? I’m sold. Fifth Head is a shortish work, only 180 or so pages on the ereader app, so I’ll definitely finish this one pretty quickly.
If you haven’t read Gene Wolfe before, consider giving him a try. He writes some very beautiful prose. His most well known work is the Book of the New Sun series, beginning with Shadow of the Torturer. His newer fiction includes The Sorcerer’s House, Home Fires, and The Land Across.