Thursday, November 8, 2012

100 Books #105 - Gene Wolfe's THE FIFTH HEAD OF CERBERUS

I have definitely joined the camp of those who consider The Fifth Head of Cerberus to be set in the same universe as Book of the New Sun/Long Sun/Short Sun. Indeed, the predicament in which Urth finds itself in BotNS now feels like the wages of the sins committed in the establishment of the societies described in Cerberus. Set on a double planet* some twenty light-years from Earth/Urth a good hundred years (at least) since its colonization by the French, who named one planet St. Anne and the other St. Croix, the three novellas comprising the book are haunted by a terrible consequence of that colonization, one that seems to be typical of humans among the stars in this universe -- and in our own.

For St. Croix, at least, was not uninhabited when we got there. But the aboroginals -- abos for short -- didn't survive our coming for long. And now theories abound as to how and why that is so -- or if, indeed, it is. Some St. Annes, at least, are obsessed with a theory that the abos had once been human, descended from an earlier wave of human expansion, which would mean that they had killed off their own kind. No one seems sure if that makes it better or worse.

Another theory is that the abos possessed the power to mimic humans so successfully that they then lost their power of perfect mimicry, lost it because the humans they mimic don't possess it, and either lived among the humans in forgetful secrecy as St. Anne/St. Croix society developed or, in one radical interpretation, actually killed off and replaced the human colonists and live on now believing they are the colonists themselves. How would they know?

It's to haunting ideas like these that Wolfe scholars like Robert "Solar Labyrinth" Borski point when they start talking about the predicament of Urth in Severian's day as a punishment inflicted on humanity by alien intelligences of the kind of awesome power we only get glimpses of until we encounter them full bore in Urth of the New Sun. I'm trying not to get spoilery here, but if the kind of unwitting bad behavior that founded is at all typical of how humans from Urth behave among the stars, no wonder the megatherians are fighting behind to keep Severian and other candidates from fulfilling their potential.

Even without the game of drawing connections to Wolfe's later work (The Fifth Head of Cerberus is only the second book Wolfe published; the dude was just warming up, here)**, these three novellas are satisfying reads in their own right, though when you're done with them you'll have spent so much of your brainspace on puzzling out all the questions of identity, in particular, that they pose, that you might doubt your own.

The titular novella concerns a boy growing up in a high end brothel, whose father specializes in customizing his employees in ways the airbrush artists at fashion magazines could only dream of, but using a similar aesthetic, and who is himself the product of generations of experimentation not unlike what he himself practices in his lab as he grows up. The second, "A Story by John V. Marsch"*** is told from the point of view of a minor character in "The Fifth Head of Cerberus", an anthropologist who is either making up or participating in a story of the lost abo culture and its first terrible contact with humanity. The third, "V.R.T." riffs on themes in the first two, calls into question all the assumptions the reader may have been making on the first read of those two, and sends her back to read them again to see whether she was wrong, right, confused or had been hit on the head by something and just dreamed them.

Yeah, it's like that. Because it's, you know, Gene Wolfe.

*Which itself seems an awful lot like the double-planet system to which the Whorl brings its colonists at the end of Book of the Long Sun, one world being blue and one green. But Gene Wolfe, when pressed "doesn't know" why this motif of Urth/Lune, St. Croix/St. Anne, Blue/Green recurs.

**But this is an irresistible game. For instance, we know that some of the inhabitants of Urth in Severian's time are returnees from the stars, returnees who came back weirdly changed and perhaps not altogether human (kind of like, say, the Ascians [BotNS spoiler alert] of whom it is impossible not to think when the protagonist of the middle story sees Shadow Children riding men like ponies) and brought back various odd creatures, and might even have terraformed the moon to make it into Green Lune out of homesickness for having a sister planet in their night sky.

***Prefiguring his strange and weirdly entertaining Pandora by Holly Hollander, Wolfe seems to like to play with the concept of authorship in titles more than any other writer ever.

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