- May 8, 2006
Here's a piece I wrote several years ago on Wolfe's The Fifth Head of Cerberus. I never did find out if I'd solved the book's puzzle correctly...
The Fifth Head Of Cerberus comprises three novellas, all sharing a common location, the twin planetary system of St Croix and St Anne. These are the title story, ‘“A Story” by John V Marsch’ and ‘V.R.T.’ The first and last share Marsch as a character—he makes an appearance in ‘The Fifth Head Of Cerberus’, and the last is his story, as told through his journals. As the title of the second story makes clear, Marsch is its narrator, although he does not appear in the text. Crimes also book-end the novel, appearing as the central events of both ‘The Fifth Head Of Cerberus’ and ‘V.R.T.’
Sainte Croix and Sainte Anne were both originally settled by the French, who lost a war sometime in the story’s recent past, and this has affected their subsequent history. St Anne has the more pioneer flavour of the two worlds, with St Croix the ‘civilised’ cousin.
‘The Fifth Head Of Cerberus’ is the remembrances of an unnamed narrator. Clues in the text suggest his surname is Wolfe—the description of a book by his father appearing under ‘W’ in the library:
The upper shelves were, if anything, in worse disorder than those more conveniently located, and one glorious day when I attained the highest of them all I found occupying that lofty, dusty position (besides a misplaced astronautics text, The Mile-Long Spaceship, by some German) only a lorn copy of Monday or Tuesday leaning against a book about the assassination of Trotsky, and a crumbling volume of Vernor Vinge’s short stories that owed its presence there, or so I suspect, to some long-dead librarian’s mistaking the faded V. Vinge on the spine for “Winge.”
and a comment that the name of the house he grew up in, Maison du Chien, may be a reference to his surname [page 14]. (Not to mention the triplet of lines from The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner that open the novella.)
Something is not quite right about the world of ‘The Fifth Head Of Cerberus’. The novella opens traditionally enough—a childhood memory—but three paragraphs later we learn that the narrator’s father traded in children. The narrator and his brother were also supervised by Mr Million, a robot. Mr Million would often take the two boys to the library, where they would debate semantics whilst ostensibly discussing the history of St Croix and St Anne.
The Maison du Chien was named for the statue of Cerberus, the three-headed dog, that stood guard by its front door. The name is also a pun, since the house is also a brothel, and its whores were often “enhanced” through science by the narrator’s father.
At the age of 7½ St Croix years, the narrator is rudely dragged from his bed, and undergoes a curious experience in his father’s study. He is nicknamed “Number Five” by his father, and then told to talk non-stop about the holograms he is shown. In his 12th year, the narrator meets his “aunt”, who tells him of Veil’s Hypothesis: that the shape-changing aborigines of St Anne mimicked the human colonists so well, they have become the human colonists. It is typical of Wolfe that he frames the reader the central puzzle of the three novellas so overtly, and yet hides it behind a “veil”. For it is the mystery of St Anne’s aborigines with which The Fifth Head Of Cerebrus is concerned. What happened to them? Where did they go? Did they truly die out?
‘The Fifth Head Of Cerebrus’, the novella, has no seeming connection to this mystery. But it is part of the solution.
After several childhood adventures, the narrator is promoted to “greeter”, and begins to learn how his father’s household works. Shortly afterwards, Marsch makes his appearance. He is looking for Veil, because he too is interested in the mystery of the abos.
During this time, the narrator’s nocturnal visits to his father’s study have continued… with the result that the narrator often dreams vividly of events and places he can’t have witnessed; and often enters a fugue state where he behaves normally but has no memory of his actions afterwards.
This mystery is solved after a raid by the narrator, his brother, and a female friend on a trader’s warehouse. Guarding the trader’s safe is a four-armed slave. The narrator recognises him: it is himself.
Number Five is apparently a clone, as is his father, of an ancestor. The nightly visits were to channel Number Five’s thought-processes such that they came to match those of the mysterious ancestor—as evidenced by his “dreams” and fugue states. On discovering this, the narrator determines to kill his “father”. He does. And the story is framed as his remembrances as he returns to the Maison du Chien having served his sentence.
‘“A Story,” by John V. Marsch’ is a Sainte Anne aboriginal myth, as transcribed by Marsch. The origin is not clear, but likely to be the boy described in ‘V.R.T.’ It describes the capture of a tribe of hill-men by a marsh tribe, and the rescue of the survivors. Sandwalker had journeyed to a sacred cave to ask advice of a hermit, when he dreamt his people had been taken by the marsh people. He goes to their rescue, but is captured and thrown into a pit called The Other Eye with the survivors of his tribe.
During his journey to the marshes, Sandwalker helped a group of Shadow Children, a nocturnal St Anne race. The Shadow Children are important.
The marsh people have captured Sandwalker’s tribe in order to sacrifice them to the stars. Like much of the story transcribed by Marsch, and the world-view of Sandwalker, this rite shows the St Anne aborigines to be worshippers of Nature. They believe that trees live, and permission should be asked of them to drink the water that collects in their roots.
It is the climax of Marsch’s “A Story” that contributes most to the central puzzle of The fifth Head Of Cerberus. The Shadow Children admit they are descended from a star-faring race, and that they are also responsible for hiding St Anne from other star-faring races. By removing this protection, the Shadow Children save Sandwalker from the marsh people, but also allow humans to land for the first time, thus changing the world’s history forever.
Clearly, “A Story” is actually a parable. Sandwalker is an inhabitant of his world; the Shadow Children may not even be real. They always appear in groups, and between them create another member of the group, the Old Wise One. Or Group Norm. The Shadow Children may be no more than accepted norms of behaviour in mythic form. While all behaved according to these, the world was safe. But breaking these norms result in the world changing beyond recognition. The Shadow Children’s admission that they were once star-farers may actually apply to all the inhabitants of St Anne. The abos are descendants of a lost colony, perhaps. And their shape-changing abilities purely mythical—after all, the only changes that are described in “A Story” could be easily metaphors; and the one recognised change is that of the central puzzle: that they became human. Perhaps they were human. They simply joined the colonists and “disappeared” into its society. It is their culture that is extinct, not the race.
It’s a nice theory, but the final novella in The Fifth Head Of Cerberus, ‘V.R.T.’, suggests the true answer is otherwise. It consists of excerpts from taped interviews, the field journal, interrogation transcripts and prison diary of Marsch, framed by a narrative describing the military officer reading those documents in order to make a decision on Marsch’s incarceration. The picture built up through these goes as follows: Marsch arrived on St Anne directly from Earth, with the intention of tracking down any surviving aboriginals, all long thought to be dead. He interviews several people with knowledge of the aboroginals, although what he is told hardly constitutes hard evidence, and consists mainly of folk tales. Then he meets Trenchard, a beggar of Irish extraction, who claims to be an aboriginal. Trenchard’s son, however, identified only by the initials V.R.T. proves a more interesting character, and he takes Marsch on a field trip to the sacred cave mentioned in the second novella. During the field trip, V.R.T. dies. Marsch heads for St Croix, where the events of the title story take place, and is then arrested for spying. The only evidence for this accusation appears to be a table of figures in the back of a copy of A Field Guide to the Animals of St Anne, which Marsch insists were there when he bought the book. The figures apparently describe the amount of drop in trajectory of a bullet for given ranges, and the authorities take this to mean Marsch is an assassin.
This is where the argument suggested around ‘A Story,” by John V Marsch’ begins to fall apart. The boy, V.R.T., clearly owes something to the abos. He is familiar with their culture, he is clumsy at things they could be expected to be clumsy at (coming from a non-technological society as they did; or perhaps an overly technological society?). He is the same mixture of knowledge and ignorance “A Story” would lead us to expect of an aborigine. His father is clearly an impostor—and treated as such by Marsch—but the boy may not be. However, it’s too easy. Trenchard’s wife was an aborigine, and so too is the son. It’s too obvious. Even Marsch, a trained anthropologist, comes to believe it, even though almost the entire populations of St Anne and St Croix believe the race to be extinct.
However, Marsch’s journals could be a complete lie. In one of the tapes of Marsch’s interrogation this is actually suggested—the example given that Marsch describes all doctors as useless and given only to helping keep ugly women alive; and yet the only doctor mentioned in his journal is a Dr Hagsmith [page 206]. Coincidence? Or proof that the journal is as fictional a construct as “A Story”?
Throw in a few more clues: The boy’s eyes are described as vividly green [page 181]; Marsch’s eyes, whilst he is on St Croix, are also described as green [page 35]. The population of St Croix is considerably diminished from what it was 50 years ago. St Croix is suspicious of St Anne and all who come from there. The narrator of ‘The Fifth Head Of Cerebrus’ accuses Marsch of being an aborigine [page 68]. The implication is that the boy took Marsch’s place, and that the unnamed narrator’s accusation in the first novella resulted in Marsch’s arrest in ‘V.R.T.’ on what appears to be negligible evidence. Because Marsch is now an aborigine.
Marsch’s behaviour and character in the first novella are different to what you would expect having read the third novella. So perhaps this is true. Marsch’s behaviour on leaving St Anne for St Croix is suspicious enough to support this theory.
If Marsch is actually V.R.T, who is an aborigine, then how true is “A Story”? On the one hand, Marsch could have written it himself, since as an aborigine in disguise the myth is his. On the other hand, I rather like the idea of “A Story” being a parable of a people who lost a war when their defences failed after internal strife. (A war is mentioned in ‘The Fifth Head Of Cerebus’, which the French lost.) Which would make Marsch no more than a supposed spy, arrested because his fiction of coming from Earth has been seen through by the conquering authorities of St Croix.