Sainte Croix and Sainte Anne are a double planet system, originally colonised by a French-speaking administration which at some point lost power under circumstances not clearly explained. Some of the colony’s technologies are futuristic, whilst others – due in part to its limited industrial base – are more reminiscent of the late 18th Century or early 19th Century, in the time period just preceding the Industrial Revolution and widespread use of the steam engine. Life is far from Utopian; work camps exist, a secret police exists, slavery exists (with some slaves being subjected to various forms of surgical enhancement), children can be sold into indentured servitude.
The colony’s darkest secret, though, concerns the original residents of Sainte Anne – referred to as “abos”. The accepted history is that they all died out in the colonisation process; people dislike to use the term “genocide”, but that’s very much the implication. However, the mysterious Dr. Aubrey Veil has circulated an intriguing hypothesis; she thinks it is possible that the residents of Sainte Anne, possessed of incredible powers of mimicry, saved themselves by killing the first wave of colonists and taking their place. But if the impersonation were truly perfect, would they recall that they had done this?
Gene Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus is one of the greatest science fiction critiques of colonialism and its aftermath. That’s saying a lot considering that it has peers such as Philip K. Dick’s Martian Time-Slip and Ursula Le Guin’s The Word For World Is Forest; indeed, it’s something of a peer to the latter, since both were first published in 1972. It’s sort of a novel, sort of a linked triptych of three novellas; the title story was written first, and was published separately initially, but overwhelming positive feedback prompted Wolfe to complete the other two stories.
It’s intensely difficult to offer any sort of meaningful discussion of the book without getting into spoilery details, since to meaningfully convey what each novella is about something of the interconnections between them must be revealed. Here, then, is a non-spoiler summary before I get into any deep dives: The Fifth Head of Cerberus is an extended meditation on the impact colonialism has on identity, sense of self, social hierarchy, paternalism, and so on and so forth. It’s something of a puzzle box, but it avoids becoming entirely dry thanks to Wolfe’s vivid depiction of the characters’ emotional states and inner lives, his playful and varied storytelling techniques, and the fact that the answers to each of those puzzles offer not so much definitive conclusions as possibilities.
In particular, if you want to have hope for the indigenous Sainte Annese, you can find reasons to believe they have survived. Some think they have thrived and almost every character in the story is one of them in disguise; I cannot quite bring myself to have that much hope for them, and think they are in a much more precarious state than that. Sometimes I think they are extinct, save for some strange residual echoes here and there, and perhaps even those echoes are more delusion than reality, a folklore invented by the colonists to fit in the gap left by the atrocities their ancestors committed in coming here.
In a way, in telling you the story, Wolfe makes of you a storyteller, since he leaves these gaps and spaces for you to fill in with your own conclusions. He will guide you in one direction or another – but you have the freedom to put your own reading on it. In this way Wolfe accomplishes his own version of the Sainte Annese confusion of identity; Wolfe may be the author of the text on the page, but how much is he the author of your personal interpretation, and how much is down to you? It is impossible to say. It is a magnificently accomplished book and, precisely because it lends itself to personal interpretation rather than imposing one particular worldview as being inherently correct within the narrative, is something I feel will date much less than other works of a similar vintage.
(I will, however, give the caveat that the third novella is not at all appropriate for listening to in an audiobook version, since it really depends on giving the reader a change to flip back and forwards easily and quickly and compare different points in the text to figure things out.)
Hereafter come the spoilers.
The title story introduces us to the Sainte Croix and Sainte Anne system. Unfolding as it does on Sainte Croix, the enigma of Sainte Anne is not so immediately relevant here as it is in the later novellas – indeed, before Wolfe provided the other two parts of the book, it would arguably be a bit of a red herring, since the events of the story could have panned out much the same if the Veil Hypothesis were false and the indigenous people of Sainte Anne were genuinely extinct. They are thematically relevant, however, because the story relates very much to troubling question of identity and origins and nature vs. nurture.
The narrator does not name himself, though clues within the story suggest that he is a Mr. Wolfe and, given some of the themes, it was pointed out that “Gene Wolfe” would be an apt name for him – a guess which Wolfe acknowledged the validity of. This isn’t the Gene Wolfe we are familiar with, though; the scion of a wealthy family which runs the most prestigious brothel in town, referred to as the “Cave Canem” or the “Maison du Chien” (a name partly punning on the family name – there’s one of your Wolfe clues – and partly referring to the Cerberus statue in the front garden), this kid grows up under the thumb of his father, a slaver and pimp who acts with total legal sanction and uses his income to further mysterious experiments, though most of his care and tuition are delegated to a dignified robot nanny-butler named Mr. Million, whose true nature is a surprise in itself.
As the young Wolfe grows, his father’s experiments on him become more alarming – but he also starts slipping into criminal behaviour, with his brother David and Phaedria, a girl for whom be develops some affection, joining him in a bid to get sufficient money to get their independence from their parents. But in doing so, is Wolfe really escaping the confines established by his heritage and upbringing, or is he circling around to end up exactly where he was destined to be?
At the heart of The Fifth Head of Cerberus is a deeply alarming experiment which is on the one hand unique in its nature and only possible due to the futuristic technology of the age (or the then-futuristic technology – some aspects have become decidedly possible), but on the other hand is merely an extreme, science fictional version of a very old human failing: namely, the particular type of parental abuse which arises from parents seeing their children not as distinct people in their own right, but as extensions of themselves. This malignant paternalism in turn is a microcosm of colonialism itself, since imperial powers regard their colonies as extensions of themselves, not as places with an inherent right to self-determination.
This makes the rather mannered, 18th-to-19th-Century-esque society of Sainte Croix rather appropriate; far from being a trivial aesthetic choice, it allows Wolfe to lean into this world of children and young adults who are very much under the thumb of their parents and chaperones, and acutely aware that unless they inherit appropriately or acquire independent wealth a dark and difficult future may await them. It also suits the themes of colonialism. Between the French origins of the colony, the slavery, and the apparent glamour attached to the Maison du Chien, one is put in mind of New Orleans, though it’s unclear what exactly happened to cause the French lose control of the colony (it’s implied to have been less good-natured than the Louisiana Purchase, and in the third novella it’s revealed that the star system was conquered in a ruthless interstellar war).
Though Fifth Head was originally conceived as a one-off novella, Wolfe manages to evoke a deep and rich enough society – and alludes to some pretty serious enigmas when it comes to the “abos” which are never directly resolved, so there was rich ground here for expansion. The next tale is “A Story,” by John V. Marsch – Marsch being an anthropologist who shows up in the first novella to investigate Veil’s Hypothesis, and who is accused of being an indigenous Sainte Anne resident masquerading as human by the narrator of Fifth Head, though if that story is taken alone that was as a conversational gambit to shut down a discussion between Marsch and the narrator’s father and he might genuinely be the academic from Earth he purports to be.
The very title of the novella introduces ambiguities: is this a story that Marsch has devised himself, or is this his rendition of a story told to him by someone else? Either way, if the tale is what it purports to be, then it’s a folk tale from the indigenous Saint Annese describing events leading to the coming of the French colonists, framing this as the result of the adventures of one Sandwalker.
Separated from his twin Eastwind at birth, Sandwalker ventures forth to attain adulthood through a ritual of contact with a dead priest; he eventually comes into conflict with Eastwind, who has become the disciple of a decidedly living priest of a different clan (Sandwalker living among the hill folk, Eastwind having ended up with the people of the marsh.), who is leading his clan in ritual sacrifice of members of the hillfolk and the mysterious Shadow children in a bid to send some message to the stars. (Whether this is possible, or based on a garbled misunderstanding of the Shadow children’s apparent psychic abilities, is an open question – but it does mean the story is, like Fifth Head, driven by a patriarchal character’s horrible experiment.) At the end of the tale, a surviving Shadow child has its revenge on the marsh folk by breaking down the psychic barrier preventing the discovery of the star system by the wider universe, causing the arrival of the French.
Now, is this an authentic Sainte Annese story as told direct from the source, or is this something that Marsch has lashed together from his various researches, a hypothetical reconstruction of a story? And was it really composed in the centuries-ago time it speaks of, or is it a more modern story, a mythologising of the coming of the French to try and make sense of it?
It is hard to say. But if it is taken as a broadly accurate description of events that did take place, rather than a “Just So”-type of story to provide a mythic explanation and context for first contact, it tells us some very interesting things. As it turns out, the Shadow children are settlers from ancient Earth – a prehistoric era of Earth lost to the mists of time, who came down and so impressed the the Sainte Annese that the Sainte Annese, formerly shapeshifters, changed to adopt human form in imitation of them.
At least, that’s how the Old Wise One explains it. The Old Wise One is a sort of telepathic gestalt entity formed from the group mental communications among the Shadow children, and those among the other peoples who learn to use this telepathy. Since in the era concerned communication with the Shadow children is rare, the Old Wise One’s manifestation is predominantly Shadow child in nature; however, Sandwalker learns the telepathic ways of the Shadow children, and so later in the story as the number of local Shadow children deminishes the Old Wise One becomes confused about its own nature, as it is informed by less Shadow child thoughts and more by regular Sainte Annese.
If, that is, the hillfolk and the marshlanders are the indigenous Sainte Annese and the Shadow children hail from Terra, and not the other way around. In some of the Old Wise One’s ramblings it’s suggested that the reverse may be true, but that the order of things has become confused when the telepathic gestalt, the Group Norm first expanded to include both Terrans and Sainte Annese (it is ambiguous as to in which it originated) and then contracted to mainly just Shadow children. As a result of this ancient colonisation process, the history of the Sainte Annese and their original indigenous identity has become horrendously muddled, which only causes further confusion when the later wave of colonisation happens.
One interesting thing about the story is that physical shapeshifting is basically not a feature of it. Sandwalker never is mentioned as changing shape, and instantly recognises Eastwind as his twin; if physical shapeshifting were routine for the Saint Annese, the odds of Sandwalker and Eastwind coincidentally having the same shape at the same time would be astonishingly remote, and the implication is that the transformation of the Sainte Annese to resemble humans happened extremely long ago, to the point where the ability would be expected to have atrophied, answering the flaw pointed out by Dr. Veil in Fifth Head. However, events recounted in the third novella suggest that this is not in fact the case – so perhaps whoever told Marsch this story either wasn’t aware of the continued ability of the Annese to shapeshift, or was soft-pedalling it to avoid giving Marsch any reason to suspect he might be next in line for replacement.
The telepathic capacities of the Shadow children, which they are able to teach the Saint Annese (or perhaps learned from them and retained knowledge of as the Annese forgot) suggests another feature of this fictional universe – namely, that such telepathic powers do exist, potentially extending to outright possession. The Shadow children are even depicted in the story by taking control of Sainte Annese by riding on their backs – perhaps a storytelling conceit symbolising psychic control or possession. At the end of the story some manner of personality transfer from body to body is hinted to have taken place; this is the culmination of the confusion between Eastwind and Sandwalker that is established early on, which is implied to be the result of a long-distance telepathic link.
Eastwind and his mentor were planning to kill Sandwalker so that Sandwalker could go between the stars and in the places of the dead and thereby act as Eastwind’s agent, giving Eastwind a source of esoteric knowledge and power as a result. In addition, Sandwalker’s saga begins with him seeking out the body of a dead priest to seek some form of dream communion with it; what if this is not a mere religious practice, but a reflection of the fact that certain “priests” of the Sainte Annese have in fact developed a capacity to keep their psychic presence active after the death of their body, an ability either innate to them or taught by the Shadow children? Late in the story the Old Wise One seems to imply that bringing back the dead is not so much impossible as undesirable.
This concept raises intriguing possibilities when it comes to an enigma in Fifth Head – namely, the periods of lost time the narrator in the story suffers, which are hard to explain within the physical and social parameters of the experiments his father is performing. These periods, when apparently the narrator acts and behaves in such a way that nobody realises anything is wrong, may correspond to time periods when the narrator is subjected to some form of psychic possession; one could fruitfully speculate as to who is responsible for this and what they might want to achieve in the long term. (My prime suspect for this – the originator of the experiment that the narrator of Fifth Head is the product of – would make the story a sort of Wolfean response to Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward – or, rather, the “possession” angle in that story which is in fact a red herring, and which the Roger Corman adaptation used either out of a misguided attempt to simplify the story or simply not understanding the original.)
“A Story” is interesting, and perhaps is the point where the book comes closest to Le Guin’s The Word For World Is Forest in terms of attempting to depict space colonisation from the perspective of an alien population. It’s no surprise that Le Guin was enthusiastic about The Fifth Head of Cerberus, since in this story in particular Wolfe comes as close as anyone has to riffing on Le Guin’s own style. Literary mimicry is sometimes frowned on, but I think it can be applauded when it’s a passable take on the style of an author with a very distinctive and memorable voice, and when it does not fall flat. (And it’s not as though Le Guin never indulged in it herself – her The Lathe of Heaven is the best Philip K. Dick novel that wasn’t actually written by Philip K. Dick.)
At the same time, it’s my least favourite segment of the book. That’s not as much of a slam as it sounds, since the standards of all three novellas are very high – but for me, “A Story” is interesting more as the lynchpin which opens up interesting insights both into Fifth Head before it and the final novella in the secrets, a necessary bit of foundation work which helps both the other novellas stand taller.
The third novella in the sequence is V.R.T.. This has the framing device of a junior officer in the Sainte Croix administration reviewing a collection of documents and audio recordings in order to give an opinion on a case file and provide instructions to the local secret police in Port-Mimizon. Rather than going through the material in a complete and orderly fashion, the officer jumps about here and there, and so the story demands a bit of documentary detective work of the reader as well as the officer.
Still, the core facts of the narrative can be inferred (though much of the detail is trickier), and indeed the place in the timeline we are at can be inferred: the officer’s examination of the case takes place a year or so after a particular climactic event in Fifth Head, and eight years prior to the protagonist of Fifth Head being released from the work camp after serving his time for murder. Though the protagonist in that tale strongly implies that he is guilty as charged, the prisoner – identified as none other than Dr. Marsch – has been arrested by the secret police, who believe that he is in fact responsible for the killing. They believe it was an assassination, ordered by the Sainte Anne military junta, for tensions between the two worlds are rising and it is feared war is imminent.
The case files includes, among other things, audio recordings of interrogations of Marsch and two fascinating diaries – one penned by Marsch in prison, one providing an account of the early stages of his years-long expedition into the wilderness of Sainte Anne in the company of “V.R.T.” – who claims to be half-Annese, his father being a beggar who purports to be indigenous Annese for the sake of novelty but who, when he drops the act, still claims that he was married to and sired V.R.T. with an actual Annese. The expedition diary ends abruptly, somewhat after an account of V.R.T.’s death… but is the man who wrote most of the field diary the same person who writes his scrawled account of his imprisonment, and who is interrogated by the Sainte Croix secret police? Or is it not Marsch at all in jail, but V.R.T.? Or could it be both?
One of the interrogation sequences hints, in non-specific terms, about the Sainte Croix authorities’ initial theory, which may even be true: that the Sainte Anne authorities held Marsch responsible for V.R.T.’s death, threatened him with prosecution, but offered to drop the charges in return for him agreeing to act as their agent, at which point they sent him to Sainte Croix on a mission of espionage – and, potentially, even assassination – using his anthropological studies as a cover. This would not at all be inconsistent with his actions in Fifth Head – his frequenting of the Cave Canem, an elite brothel, having the perfect pretext for it in the form of chasing up Veil’s Hypothesis and then allowing him to mingle with the rest of the clientele, potentially developing useful connections (and, if there was an assassination component to his mission, getting closer to his target).
Indeed, it could even be true if the prisoner is in fact V.R.T. – after all, he would hardly confess as much to the Sainte Anne authorities should they have come knocking under the impression he was Marsch. Equally, Marsch/V.R.T. may even be innocent of the murder in Fifth Head, even if he is a spy, since the Sainte Anne authorities didn’t necessarily order the hit and the killing may have panned out just as the narrator of Fifth Head implies. The Sainte Croix authorities could have come to a correct conclusion from an incorrect premise, as a result of the murder inadvertently prompting scrutiny of Marsch.
If we go with the theory that the prisoner is V.R.T., does this mean that Marsch is dead – or have the two become one in some fashion, much as happens at the end of “A Story”? Do the Sainte Annese truly mimic others by outright replacing them, or do they conceal themselves by fusing with others on some fundamental level, transmitting their personality like a virus (perhaps even with a virus or some other parasitic organism)? The idea of entities that consume the memories and personality traits of others comes up elsewhere in Wolfe’s fiction, after all.
The amalgam/gestalt concept would certainly simplify many of the ambiguities of the novella. If the prisoner is fully V.R.T. and knows he is V.R.T., the fact that he seems to put giveaway clues to this in the prison diary would seem to be pointlessly self-defeating when he is presumably writing the diary with an eye to convincing anyone who reads it that he is really Marsch (though if he has taken Marsch’s place and has forgotten his original identity, with it only coming through in flashes, that could explain a lot).
If the prisoner is fully Marsch, it’s hard to explain some sections of the prison diary unless Marsch had the delusion that he was also V.R.T.. There is a tantalising possibility that the Annese are genuinely extinct, and that Marsch’s belief that he met them in the hills and identification with V.R.T. are the result of Marsch being drawn into a folie à deux initially shared by V.R.T. and Trenchard.
But if he is a mingling of the two – Marsch infected in some way with V.R.T.’s personality, or vice-versa – then these shifts in identity and memory suddenly make more sense, V.R.T. shuffling about underneath the cover of Marsch. (If such contagion is possible then it’s not impossible that the narrator of Fifth Head is not, in fact, the “fifth head”, but the fourth, at least in terms of the physical body…) When contemplating this stuff one can’t help but think of the early Church’s Christological arguments about whether Christ was fully divine, fully human, fully both, half one and half the other, initially fully human before becoming partly or entirely divine, and so on. To go back to the Dick comparisons, here we’re less in the territory of Martian Time-Slip and more that of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, which depicts an inverted form of Communion breaking out on colony worlds just as here Wolfe is depicting a sort of very heretical Christological allegory.
In execution, then, the story is an intriguing blending of Arthur Machen and John le Carré – from Machen we get the strong emphasis on inference and implication rather than explicit disclosure of what’s happened, from le Carré the pessimistic and jaded depiction of the world of espionage and counter-espionage. To an extent Machen’s “little people” stories, informed in part by the concept of a diminutive race of pre-Celtic inhabitants of Western Europe being the source of much fairy lore (as described in sources such as Margaret Murray’s The Witch-Cult In Western Europe), are perhaps an inspiration for the book as a whole; certainly there are parallels.
Indeed, Wolfe has Marsch enunciate a Murray-like theory – not necessarily because Wolfe actually believes it to be true or wants to present it as being real in the context of this fictional universe, but because it’s appropriate to namedrop such ideas to develop the important parallel. Murray’s theories, though misguided, were based on an essentially true idea – that before the Romans colonised Britain and France, the Celts were there, and there were people there before the Celts showed up at that. In other words, colonialism is not a one-and-done process, it is a thing which happened long before the European wave and could happen again. Could this be a hint that the Shadow children, and not the hill folk and marsh people in “A Story”, are the actual Saint Annese, rather than being the colonists from ancient Earth? After all, of all the groups in that story, they fit the “little people” idea far better than Sandwalker and Eastwind’s people.
This strand in turn makes both V.R.T. specifically and the Marsch-adjacent sections of the book more broadly examinations of the science of anthropology. Wolfe prompts us to question whether it’s really true, as Marsch asserts, that anthropologists don’t harm the cultures they study, and depicts Marsch expressing some rather colonialist and bioessentialist attitudes in his writings – almost quasi-Victorian in their stance (much of the action of V.R.T. is reminiscent of expeditions in Victorian-era Australia, or perhaps the American Old West; there’s even railways on Sainte Anne, though there do not seem to be on Sainte Croix). Again, I do not think this is deliberate endorsement of these ideas by Wolfe so much as it’s there to reflect how such ideas underlay European colonialism.
A fascinating thing about V.R.T. is how it brings some of the events of Fifth Head back into focus, especially towards the end, and in doing so recontextualises them, thus deepening the former story. These aspects tie into my personal theory about Marsch/V.R.T.’s fate, which is that he dies in custody some seven to eight years after the events of the story, and the authorities were sufficiently convinced that he was the assassin they thought he was that they decide to release the narrator of Fifth Head from penal servitude (as narrated in that story). They give him no public exoneration – to do that would be to expose too much of what they did to Marsch, after all – but they probably see no reason to keep him confined, especially since he might be useful to them in other ways if he goes into his father’s line of work.
On this latter point, during this story it’s revealed that the father in Fifth Head lent his scientific talents to the secret police for “enhanced interrogation” purposes. In doing so, he becomes not merely a cruel father, unethical scientist, and amoral slaver, but a torturer; one could see him, then, as a distant colleague of Severian, protagonist of The Book of the New Sun, who is in a similar line of work. And in taking up the family business at the end of Fifth Head, the protagonist of that story may take a similar course too – the general theme of the protagonist coming full circle to repeat the intergenerational pattern so established there means this is in fact likely. (We might hope that perhaps the next iteration of this experiment will break free from its confines… after all, if the narrator of Fifth Head is Number Five, the next in the lineage will be Number Six… but then again, those who’ve seen The Prisoner know who ends up Number One in the end.)
In my reading, V.R.T. by itself is a rather effective ending to the whole book because the conclusion of the story, whilst fairly subdued if the novel is taken by itself, puts a chilling new spin on the end of the original Fifth Head. The officer finishes his investigation by choosing to specifically censor – by removing the tape from the case file – the evidence of a government interrogator acknowledging the Cave Canem’s significance to the secret police. (The prison diary alludes to this – but if it leaked without the audio, it could be brushed off as the prisoner making up scandalous stories. Actual audio of a Sainte Croix official acknowledging it would be a problem.)
This strongly implies that, as I’ve theorised above, the secret police hopes to make future use of the Cave Canem and its proprietor. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. We know now exactly what career that protagonist, that “Gene Wolfe”, is going to be getting into after the end of Fifth Head, now that his business is back up and running and he’s picking up the interests he had before jail. He is going to get into the business of torture.
As, indeed, the real Gene Wolfe would in 1980.
7 thoughts on “Sainte Annese Self-Slip”
Just finished the novel for the first time yesterday and let it marinate for a day before reading anything. Your write-up is everything I could have hoped for. Thoughtful and thorough, while conceding that the text hints and obscures more than it tells. Great work, I’ll make sure to pop by here every now and again for recommendations and reads.
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