When I was deciding the order in which I would review the Wolfe books that I own, The Fifth Head of Cerberus was a natural starting point, not just because it is the oldest (first published in 1972) out of the books I have, but more because its style and its themes are closest in relation to the books that came afterwards. This book is actually three novellas that connect with each other in ways that might not be apparent at first to the reader, but with re-reads and a careful attention paid to the tiniest of details, these connections make for a fascinating tale.
Before touching upon the stories themselves, it would be best to keep in mind that the setting is a dual-planet system, with the twin planets of Sainte Anne and Sainte Croix revolving around each other. At some point in the relatively recent past (100-200 years before the literary present), French-speaking colonists had discovered this system and they began a conflict-filled conquest of the planets, which were then inhabited by a race of shapeshifters (or so some think, although many have come to believe this is a myth based on the lack of evidence remaining as to their existence) referred to as the Annese.
The first novella, "The Fifth Head of Cerberus," introduces No. 5, a first-person narrator who
has had a strange and confusing childhood, with hints of cloning and of a hidden and altered past. As his story progresses, the tone shifts, becoming more dark and sinister, as elements from his past are slowly (and perhaps untruthfully) revealed to us. No. 5 encounters an "anthropologist" named John Marsch, who in turn plays a major role in the next two novellas. This Marsch has secrets of his own and a careful look at what he says, does, and records here and in the other two novellas brings to light many events that seem to indicate what we experience on the surface may be far from what has been happening underneath the surface narrative.
"'A Story,' by John Marsch," the second novella, touches upon a possibly true, possibly fictionalized account of the last days of the pre-Contact Annese. The characters here engage in a sort of a ritual of the quest for knowledge, with dreams and the meanings of these portants playing a major role in shaping this fable/story of betrayal and sacrifice that might have reflections in the discovery of Sainte Anne and Sainte Croix by the French soon afterwards.
"V.R.T" closes the novella cycle with an ominous scene of a police interrogation of John Marsch. Based on comments recorded by the interrogator as well as clues presented in the other two novellas, the astute reader may begin to question just what is real and what is falsified about the accounts presented to us. Have the Annese truly disappeared? Are they part of "us" now, or have "we" been replaced by "them?" These are some of the questions that may arise from reading this final novella.
However, like his latter novels, there are no simple readings of these interconnected novellas. I have come across some interpretations that argue that based on how the Annese are presented throughout the novel, that the three tales could serve as a metaphor for post-colonialism and the complex interrelationships between the "colonists" and the "colonized" that are analogues with what has taken place in Africa and Asia since the mid-20th century. There is something to that, but I also would argue that these stories also concentrate on issues such as nature vs. nurture and the scope and limits of "freedom" in a complex society.
The Fifth Head of Cerberus is not easy reading for those who want a simple, direct answer to questions. But for those who are willing to puzzle over what has been written and question what has been presented, this book certainly will make for an enjoyable reading experience that promises even more upon re-reads. This certainly was the case for me, as I hadn't read it since the summer of 2003 when I first bought it. I found that I enjoyed the mysteries much more this time around than I did when I first read it and I believe it is a book that will continue to yield more of its central mysteries the more times that I read it in the coming years.