The Fifth Head of Cerberus. (Unboxed spoilers, of sorts.)

I just finished reading this book. As usual I am dazzled by Gene Wolfe’s prose, haunted by the atmosphere of melancholy wierdness he creates, and absolutely flummoxed by what it all means.

Some questions:

First, I read somewhere that it supposedly takes place in the same universe as the Book of the New Sun, before the decline of earth. I have my doubts about this. I couldn’t see any evidence for it.

Second, are all the humans really Annese (abos)? It seems unlikely. Thehumans seem to have come in waves, first the french and then their successors–unidentified as far as I can tell. But there seem to have been some earlier explorers as well. At least that’s what I got out of the middle novella.

From the first Novella, The Fifth Head of Cerberus:

What was Number five’s father trying to accomplish with his experiments? He speaks of wondering why he doesn’t go any higher than he does? What does he mean by this? He is already rich and powerful.

What do the last two lines mean? I opened it and she had the child with her. Someday they’ll want us.

Was the creature guarding the box an abo?

From the second Novella, “A Story,” by John V. Marsch

Was Sandwalker an Annese or a human who had gone native. Who were the Annese, Sandwalker’s people or the Shadow Children? What the heck was up with the Shadow Children anyway. Did they really call down a starship at the end?

From the third Novella, V.R.T.

Actually, this is the least ambiguous for me. I gather Marsch died and was replaced by VRT, an annese.

Is that the case?

Any other light anyone could shed?

I read it a couple of years ago and found it rather obtuse - much more so than the books of all the different types of suns. I’m afraid I don’t have Severian’s memory and therefore cannot be of any service to you. :slight_smile:

I just remember not particularly liking the compilation and filing it mentally under “probably not going to read again.”

I tried to read it but was unsuccessful. That was a while ago, well before I started taking Ritalin…

The Shadow of the Torturer and the books that follow were really great, IMO.

I’ve read it twice and I have no more idea what it was about than if I hadn’t read it at all. Wolfe is my favorite author but I was completely lost with this one.

I’m gonna give this my one alotted bump just to see what happens. (I think I read that rule somewhere.)

Anyway, I’m glad to see that I’m not the only confused person. When I was googling I was surprised how many pans this book got, even from people who professed to be Wolfe fans. Granted it’s pretty amibigous, but only somewhat more than most of Wolfe. Even in the New Sun series there are plenty of things left unexplained. And the style and imagination in Cerberus are as good as anything else he’s written.

Also I think in someways the ambiguity was the point. One way to read the book is a a fantastic version of something quite human: the riddle of identity, the quest to find out who we really are.

I’m a big fan of Wolfe’s. This is definitely one of his more opaque works (moreso than Free Live Free, even).

I see no evidence for this either. To be fair, there’s no evidence against it, either; Book of the New Sun is set (in what would be) so far in our future that there would be no relevance anyway. Cerberus is set (relative to the New Sun) fairly close to our time, as witnessed by the continuity with the French, and the relatively understandable technology. I would say that there is no connection (story-wise) between this book and the New Sun, and whether they could be set in the same universe is irrelevant.

The recent settlers are definitely humans. There was an old exploration party (the original one) that fared poorly. The real question is this: are the abos (the Annese) that are around (as explored later) purely humans from the first exploration, that have killed off and replaced the abos; or did they die off, after giving the abos some of their culture; or is there some interbreeding that went on?

I think he’s one of these people that are never happy with their lot in life. He expects to be the leader of the whole colony, perhaps. What he’s doing is trying to extend his own life, either in his own person, or through replacing himself with his copies (mechanical, or clones). At the same time, he’s trying to improve upon himself, correcting any perceived defects he has each time.

It’s worth noting that all the people native to that house are, in some fashion, the same person. (That person’s name, by the way, is Gene Wolfe.)

I’m afraid I can’t remember them out of context, and I don’t have the book readily available.

If memory serves me: the implication is that Sandwalker’s people were descended from earliest human explorers, either by themselves, or inbreeding with the Shadow Children. The Shadow Children are the original Annese, and aren’t still around by the time of Marsch, and Number Five. There is some ambiguity, which leaves open the possibility that the Shadow Children are the humans gone native (in copying the natives, or evolving to meet their environment), and that Sandwalker’s people are the Annese, evolving to copy the humans. The starship at the end (whether called or coincidence) would be the earliest of the “modern” (read: successful) human settlers arriving.

Yes, that’s true, and is a pretty clear reading of the text. Furthermore, you should then reexamine the second section of the book knowing this information; was that written by an abo who knows his people’s version of events? What is less certain: does “Marsch” know who he is, or does he think he’s the same person?

Here are some tell-tale signs to watch for: who can use tools, what tools can they use, and how do they use them? I believe that in this book, Wolfe showed humans that have evolved normal tool use; humans that have “devolved” (or evolved in a different direction), and can’t use tools anymore; and then either Annese natives or those devolved humans (it is ambiguous which) that have further evolved, and can use some tools – but not in the same way as humans do. Something to do with the hands, I think.

Thanks for that response, NE Texan! FHoC is a difficult book, though all of Wolfe’s books can me maddeningly elliptical.

The main question in “A Story” is whether it’s Sandwalkers people who are Anneese pretending to be human, or the Shadow children. Your interpretation–that it’s Sandwalker’s people who are human and the shadow children who are native–makes sense, but the alternative is also possible. The “Old Wise One” (Some sort of group projection of the shadow children, I gather) spoke of the humans as being corrupted by a native intoxicant and seemed to be referring to his people. Also the Shadow chldren seemed to have knowledge of some tech that the abos couldn’t have.

However the whole thing is unknowable, deliberately so. Clearly Wolfe intended that neither answer would be definitive, and the question of the idnetity of certain humans would be a mystery. Compounding the ambiguity of course is that “A story” is speculation by Marsch himself, who may have been replaced by an Annese at the time.

The context of the last lines is as follows.

Number 5 has returned home after serving his time in prison for murdering his father. The house is “in a confused state” because his aunt—the Veil of Veil’s hypothesis–tore it up looking for Dad’s money, but Dad had spent all his spare money on his genetic researches. Number 5 apparently resumes said researches, though whether he will make another clone is unclear. His old girlfreind Phaidra is divorced and living at the house. She is the one who comes knocking at the door with a child. I don’t know who the child is. I don’t think it’s another clone, but it could be. The very last line “Someday they’ll want us” makes me think there was something more to Dad’s experiments beyond self-understanding, something number 5 is only aware of now, some society he belongs to, possibly having to do with the existence of human-abo hybrids and possibly related to the four armed man thing the children killed in the bestiary.

I suppose it’s a mistake to look for definitive answers. As I said, I think the book can be read as an exploration in fantasy of our own quest for identity, of the mysteries that surround all of our existence.

Yeah, it’s a pretty twisted book, in the Moebius sense of the word.

I don’t have my copy of the book within twelve states of me at the moment, and can’t remember all of the details; thanks for the reminder of the end, there.

Was there any connection between Phaidra and the family? I can’t remember at this point. But the child might have more in common with the Wolfe family there than first meets the eye…

I’m going to have to re-read this, when I get the chance. This is a complex enough book, it’s really difficult to remember key points from memory. (An odd coincidence: I’m currently rereading Exodus from the Long Sun.)

I retrieved my copy of this book, and began rereading it. The memory jog was quite helpful.

The key explanation is during the meeting with Dr. Marsch near the end of that third. The main character says (with ellipses for my omissions):

It seems that the character is expecting that, if he achieves immortality, he could in his time learn enough, and become greater intellectually, and socially, and presumably the people of the planet (and the rest of humanity?) would then recognize that and make him their leader. As it his, what fame he has is as a freak.

The problem is shown in #5’s dream. While he wants to know why he’s not progressing, he has his personality repeated so nearly precisely the same, that there is no room for improvement. At the end, we see that #5 has become him to the extent that he wants to do the same, which brings us to your next question:

Forget my earlier supposition about Phaedra, which was incorrect. She has rejoined him, and this is sometime later. We must assume that “the child” is the next in line - the next clone. You’ll note, he does not say, “his child”, or “her child”, and Wolfe is very precise about such things.

It was an experimental clone. During the story, you see that the older one (say, #4) experiments on clones until he gets the one he wants, and sells the extras to the slave market. #5 is surprised and shocked to see his own face on the chest’s guard. He is even following #4’s footsteps in experimental cloning and biology, and wants to know how the extra arms were put in - that’s exactly the thing he would do himself. In fact, to himself.

It’s also really interesting to note the themes this shares with the Book of the New Son - achieving immortality (alzabo or Typhon there, vs. cloning), the ships on the river, slavery, the humans who have been altered to have no mind (and are they still human?), and several others.

Thanks again for the replies. I think you’re right that the new child is another clone. Number six, if you will. Phaedra seems to have replaced the aunt as Number 5 replaced the father. As for the very last line, I guess “they” are the people or society or something, that will want to give him power or acceptance beyond that of a whoremaster and freak.

I wish there was more description of the various successive clone’s motives. Why did the original have this burning desire in the first place? And what were the experiments being conducted on number 5, which caused those disturbing fugues?

It seems to me that the experiments were psychological tests - like a complicated version of the Rorschat (spelling uncertain, sorry) tests. I had the impression that the child in the holographs was a version of the same person, perhaps #1, and that #4 studied “himself” while being apart by having #5 be the subject.

Ironically, between the exposure to images from the past of the predecessors, and the memory erasures, it seems to me that these experiments (instead of giving information on the different between #5 and the predecessors) instead served as a sort of brainwashing that made #5 just like the predecessors.

Why did the original have this sort of burning desire? That’s just the sort of desire for a mad scientist to have, that a story gets written about. Say instead that, a person exists with this desire, and therefore generates this series of events the story gets written about.

This experimentation on others and using the results for himself is another recurring theme of Wolfe’s - compare to Baldanders in the New Sun.

Oh, and the binary planet, with one looking green and the other looking blue, one with an aboriginal race that may copy humans, and possibly another race, echoes strongly (presages, rather) the setting of the Short Sun trilogy.