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  1. #1
    Member of the Month™ Ropie's Avatar
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    March 07 BOTM: The Fifth Head of Cerberus

    I seem to remember suggesting this book. However, seeing as I am still 20 pages or so from finishing I'll just put up some initial points for discussion:


    Story number 1 seems to be the one that people remember and enjoy the most - why do you think this is and do you agree with them?

    Story number 2 is a 'story within a story'. What is the real significance of its place within the context of the novel as a whole?

    Story number 3 reads as a collection of randomly picked-up diary entries. Did you find the structure of this chapter was successful or not?

    How did the tripartite nature of the book work for you and how successful do you think the connections were between each story? Did you enjoy the way Wolfe presents us with a series of linked puzzles?

    The book seems to deal with a broad range of subjects - cloning, memory, mythology, oppression, colonization, to name just a few. Did you find a clear message in the book or is it just the work of a young writer who lacks focus?

    ** EXPECT PLENTY OF SPOILERS BELOW **
    Last edited by Ropie; March 2nd, 2007 at 04:08 AM.

  2. #2
    Lemurs!!! Moderator Erfael's Avatar
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    Just wanted to let you know I'm here Ropie. I'm doing a very slow reread. So far I'm only through the first one. I'll save some comments until I've had a chance to go through a little bit more of it as my previous read was a few years back and is a little hazy.

  3. #3
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    Loved the first story, liked the second, and was ambivalent about the third. Overall, however, I was impressed with Wolfe's ability to fashion such a well-written and clever narrative puzzle. So clever, in fact, that I'm still trying to put the pieces together. It doesn't help that it's been well over a month since I finished this book. From what I've been able to figure out: There were two sister planets. The inhabitants of one colonized the other. The inhabitants of the colonized world were shapeshifters who killed and assumed the human form of their conquerors. Over the centuries, they forgot their original form and assumed themselves to be human. This is hinted at but I believe reinforced by the cloning experiments the father runs on Number Five in the first story and the suggestion that Number Five possesses memories of events he has not personally experienced. Marsh, the anthropologist, who pays a visit to the brothel in the first story in order to discuss the Veil's Hypothesis (re: the conquered shapeshifters who have blended into human society and have forgotten their true identities), is also the author of the second story which deals with the myth of an aboriginal people, and the prisoner who keeps a diary in the third story in which he relates his journey through aboriginal territory in the company of a boy-guide who has some sort of connection to the natives. The boy-guide is killed and Marsh returns to civilization. Or is that what happens? I remember being quite confused in the author's description of the events following the boy-guide's death, a puzzling shifting in persepctive that seemed to suggest it was Marsh that died, not the boy. Quite possibly then, Marsh was the one who died at which point the boy, an aborigine and descendent of the shapeshifters, assumed his form and took his place.

    I could be way off-base and I'm sure that's not even 10% of the mystery, but it's a start. In time, I'll have to give The Fifth Head of Cerberus another read and the time and attention it deserves. Does anyone know if Wolfe's other books are along the same lines? Do I risk brain-bleed by checking out the Books of the Long Sun or Books of the New Sun?

    "tory number 1 seems to be the one that people remember and enjoy the most - why do you think this is and do you agree with them?"

    I would agree. It is the most straightforward narrative.

    "tory number 2 is a 'story within a story'. What is the real significance of its place within the context of the novel as a whole?"

    If my theory is correct, then the story is a recollection (much like the ancestral memories Number Five experiences in the first story) told by a descendent of the shapeshifters (the aboriginal boy-guide) through the anthropologist Marsh (whose form he has assumed).

    "Story number 3 reads as a collection of randomly picked-up diary entries. Did you find the structure of this chapter was successful or not?"

    That's a hard one to answer. I know I didn't enjoy it as much as the other more straightforward narratives. On the other hand, I still haven't scratched the surface on the book's mystery and I can't fault the author if I don't know the reasoning behind his approach.

    "How did the tripartite nature of the book work for you and how successful do you think the connections were between each story? Did you enjoy the way Wolfe presents us with a series of linked puzzles?"

    Again, I enjoyed it as far as I could understand it. I believe the connections between the story were very subtle and tripartite narrative could be very rewarding with a better understanding of what the heck is going.

    "The book seems to deal with a broad range of subjects - cloning, memory, mythology, oppression, colonization, to name just a few. Did you find a clear message in the book or is it just the work of a young writer who lacks focus?"

    I though the book was very focused, well thought-out, and expertly crafted. That said, I'm still very confused and would love to hear other people weigh in with their thoughts.

  4. #4
    Member of the Month™ Ropie's Avatar
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    LordB, you certainly came to more rounded conclusions than I did the first time I read this. As to whether or not your ideas (or anybody's) could actually be proved by closer inspection of the text, I have the feeling the answer would be no. Wolfe's style is literate enough to hide the fact, just possibly, that there is no definite answer, only tantalizing clues and hints.

    That aside, I like what you have said especially with regard to the end of the final story (which I still haven't quite finished yet ). So I'll be back with more comments when I'm through!

    Just for now though I can say that, regardless of opinion on the story and its content, few could deny that this is one of the most atmospheric books in SF.

  5. #5
    Member of the Month™ Ropie's Avatar
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    I realise I underestimated the amount I had left to read - more like 70 pages Anyway, now I really am down to the last 20 pages and was reading until absolutely the last minute before I had to leave this morning.

    The further into the prisoner's story you get the more likely it seems that some kind of transformation has taken place. I'm thinking in particular of the way he starts reminiscing about his mother whom he describes in a very similar way to the mother of the beggar boy, VRT, with her 'control of her facial muscles', etc. His lack of knowledge about his 'home planet' of Earth, his unused walking boots after 3 years in the wilderness, etc...
    Last edited by Ropie; March 5th, 2007 at 05:04 AM.

  6. #6
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ropie View Post
    The further into the prisoner's story you get the more likely it seems that some kind of transformation has taken place. I'm thinking in particular of the way he starts reminiscing about his mother whom he describes in a very similar way to the mother of the beggar boy, VRT, with her 'control of her facial muscles', etc. His lack of knowledge about his 'home planet' of Earth, his unused walking boots after 3 years in the wilderness, etc...

    Another interesting thing that someone else pointed out to me was that both the boy (as described in the third story) and the prisoner/anthropologist (as described in the first story) have green eyes.

  7. #7
    Member of the Month™ Ropie's Avatar
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    I didn't spot the green eye clue. Towards the end of the book though the prisoner seems to be trying to cover the tracks of what he has already written (papers which have been confiscated from him) about his supposedly Annese mother by saying that he spoke "too imaginatively" (or words to that effect) about his family back on Earth.

    I did finish the book last night and as I remembered it just fades out with a whimper, the reader being left none the wiser really. There is no moment of solution or clarity - it's all just a haze of anachronic diary excerpts written by the hand of a person who seems to be in two minds about their own identity. For me though this adds to the book's appeal; there's nothing so tantalizing as that that you can't quite reach. Now I am also wondering - was the second chapter, "the story", written by by VRT or Marsch (or both)?

    Whilst doing a quick search this morning I found the following short essay that presents some interesting - and some slightly tenuous - ideas about the link between VRT and Number 5. The author of the piece seems in no doubt as to the identity of the prisoner: http://www.ultan.org.uk/5hborski.htm

    Puzzles aside though, this has to be one of the most finely crated books in SF. The atmosphere of the whole book is pitched right on the point of tipping over into a sort of congenital insanity but it never gets there because of the strict facade of dignity that the colonists are intent on covering everything up with. They even attempt to justify their use of slaves by explaining that they are what makes a society truly free. It's this incredible but somehow fitting blend of the archaic standards of a class-driven society and the technologically advanced that seems to afflict interplanetary colonies in SF. Sherri Tepper's Grass is another fine example of this dichotomy in action.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Ropie View Post
    Whilst doing a quick search this morning I found the following short essay that presents some interesting - and some slightly tenuous - ideas about the link between VRT and Number 5. The author of the piece seems in no doubt as to the identity of the prisoner: http://www.ultan.org.uk/5hborski.htm

    Puzzles aside though, this has to be one of the most finely crated books in SF.
    Agreed. It's a book that begs re-reading.

    Thanks for the link. My head is still spinning.

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    I'm going to have to re-read this sometime. I guess I wasn't thinking hard enough about what I was reading, and I missed a bunch of clues to what was really going on. I think the middle section of the book caused me to loose some interest and I just wanted to get through the book. With the way this discussion has gone, I feel like I wasted the opportunity with this book. Meaning, if I had paid closer attention to the details I would have gotten more out of it.

  10. #10
    Member of the Month™ Ropie's Avatar
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    The middle section is a bit odd and does seem a bit detached from the rest of the book. However, it's repleat with symbolism related to the planets and the cultures of the 'abos'.

    It's the second time I have read this book and I still find it a confusing read, especially where all the different races are concerned - the hillmen, the shadow children, the settlers, the humans, the Annese, the Abos...? Working out who they all are - or who they think they are - and where they came from is tough. It's a book that rewards re-reading though and not only with a sense of discovering a bit more each time but also with the quality of the prose.

    Anyone else read(ing) it??
    Last edited by Ropie; March 7th, 2007 at 11:31 AM.

  11. #11
    Registered User Raule's Avatar
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    I need to re-read this. I read it a few years ago, and even then thought I didn't fully understand everything. The first story was the most straight forward for me. I remember thinking the second the most surreal, but not really sure what exactly happened, and I'm fuzzy on the third by now. Of course, whenever I encounter the name Victor in a story like this I immediately think about Victor Frankenstein and the relationship between the creator and his creation. Not sure if Wolfe was trying to draw any parallels there, though. I remember also thinking, since I tried Delany around the same time, that there was something about the themes in this one that reminded me of the themes of Empire Star (re colonialism). I really need to revisit this, though.

  12. #12
    Lemurs!!! Moderator Erfael's Avatar
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    You know, this was my first full reread of Fifth Head, and weeks are going by and I still haven't come up with something to say about it that hasn't been said. I definitely appreciated it more this second time around. I think one of the most interesting aspects of the book is the question surrounding who the main characters really are as we go through the book. Much of that has been touched upon above. I did want to mention a quote from the front of my edition by Ursula K. Le Guin:

    "The uncertainty principle embodied in brilliant literature."

    I thought this was a fairly interesting way to characterize the book. It seems spot on, and I definitely read the book in a different way thinking of that quote my second time than I did the first time through when I didn't really notice the quote. I wonder what you all think of your read-through in light of that characterization or how you think it might affect later readings, if at all.

  13. #13
    the puppet master ArthurFrayn's Avatar
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    It seems spot on, and I definitely read the book in a different way thinking of that quote my second time than I did the first time through when I didn't really notice the quote.

    To tell you the truth, I puzzled over the applicability of that quote.
    The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (and correct me if I'm wrong) is that the very act of trying to observe the behaviour of sub atomic particles alters their behavior.
    How is the literary extrapolation of that, a central theme to this novel?

    Sounds to me like UKLG is just basically finding a fancy way to say:"it's whatever you want it to be".
    Last edited by ArthurFrayn; March 27th, 2007 at 12:12 PM.

  14. #14
    As the editor of the Gene Wolfe site, Ultan's Library, I'm glad you were interested in Robert Borski's article. Let me draw your attention to the earlier article on 5th Head, by another Wolfe scholar, Peter Wright: http://www.ultan.org.uk/5hwright.htm

    At the time, Robert Borski had a website about 5th Head which made my head spin, so after Peter submitted his piece, I asked Robert if he would write some kind of response. I admit that Robert's criticism sometimes leaves my head spinning: he sees mysteries and answers where I often only ever see texture, but it is always interesting.

    Must read 5th Head again soon. it has one of my favourite opening pages of all Wolfe's fiction.

    J

  15. #15
    the puppet master ArthurFrayn's Avatar
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    That essay covers a lot of what I found to be the central themes of the novel. Postcolonialism, and identity.
    I don't see the unreliability of observation as the mentioning of the Uncertainity Priniciple would imply, as a key theme. Especially since so much of the novel is written in the first person from the POV of those one would assume are the observed.

    Like I said before this kind of obfuscatory narrative strategy is something I see emulating the style of Faulkner. If you've read The Sound and the Fury, or As I Lay Dying, you'll see what I mean. You play these kind of peekaboo games in gleaning out "what happened" in those novels in the same way.

    I think this novel is very successful in using those techniques in a SF context.
    Last edited by ArthurFrayn; March 27th, 2007 at 02:49 PM.

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