Science Fiction Friday: “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” by Gene Wolfe

Allow me to indulge in three of my favorite things in life: alliteration, science fiction, and short stories.

Gene Wolfe’s “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” tells of the sullen lives of two boys trapped inside their father’s house with little to no human contact aside from their tutor, Mr. Million. For the bulk of their childhood they are permitted to leave the house only to accompany Mr. Million to the city library. There they read books of science and discuss life on other neighboring planets, such as Earth. The unnamed narrator and his brother David are subjected to their father’s nightly experiments in which their father rouses them from their beds, brings them to his study and proceeds to stimulate them with strange questions and optical illusions. David is forced to participate less often than the narrator who is brought in regularly for years. Curiously at this point the story ventures off for quite a while to touch on the boys’ youth involving their almost-romance with a girl who encourages them to participate in a local play in the city park. While some readers may imagine all of the complex and intelligent ways in which this large chunk of the story contributes overall, this particular reader saw it of no relevance and feels it could easily be left out.

The narrator of “The Fifth Head of Cerberus”, renamed by his father as Number Five, is drugged nightly for his father’s intent to delve into his subconscious. He feels he has entered alternate realities multiple times and when finally awoken can never discern where in time, or when, he is. This of course subsequently setting Number Five up for years of mental disturbances and memory loss. Months will pass without his remembrance, as he is left with the memory of different moments strung together in which he was subject to his father’s torturous mind experiments.

Just as Number Five is realizing it himself, he is told that he is a clone duplicate of his father. He is the fiftieth in a trial of experiments designed to uncover self-knowledge and the nature of their social and intellectual existence. This information doesn’t faze Number Five, as he had about expected something of this nature by now. He continues his plan of revenge against his father, after so many years of his life were taken through the delusional experiments forced on him.

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