Gene (Rodman) Wolfe Douglas Barbour - Essay

Douglas Barbour

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Gene Wolfe] has shown a consistent growth in the understanding of his art. The three interconnecting novellas of The Fifth Head of Cerberus are his most multiplex work yet.

The title novella concerns a man's search for his selfhood. Like [Barry Malzberg, author of Beyond Apollo], Wolfe is fully aware of the many possibilities true speculative fiction offers. All three novellas are connected by their relationships to each other and to the twin planets of St. Anne and St. Croix where they occur. Yet all three are forms of documentation and not ordinary stories at all. The character who seeks some truth about his own life by writing it down is both protagonist and storyteller in "The Fifth Head of Cerberus"; Gene Wolfe is hidden behind him (is, in fact, well hidden behind all the fictional 'documents' that are all three novellas). This character is a cloned immortal (immortal insofar as the fact of his being a clone means he is in some fashion the same man as his father, grandfather, etc.). But is he quite the same person, or is he not? Wolfe uses the story to raise the deepest questions about identity. There is a dark heart of mystery to this story which is chilling in its integrity. By finding a new speculative approach to age old questions concerning selfhood and inheritence, Wolfe has created a truly gripping, if entirely open-ended story here.

Nevertheless, the other two stories ["'A Story' by John V. Marsch" and "V.R.T."] move further into dark areas of human knowledge, and self-knowledge. St. Anne and St. Croix were originally settled by the French and then, after some war, an English garrison took over, in very different ways on the two planets (there are certain subtle parallels with the conquest of North America implied). The social consequences of the double settlement are explored, but Wolfe is after...

(The entire section is 770 words.)