Tag Archives: Science Fiction Short Stories

The Fifth Head of Cerberus

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Fifth Head of Cerberus [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Gene Wolfe.

Wolfe The Fifth Head of Cerberus

“Three novellas” says the cover, and that’s what this volume contains. Although the three share a science-fictional setting (the double-planetary system of St. Anne and St. Croix) and there is a single character (Dr. John V. Marsch) who appears in all three, they could be read in any sequence. They are mutually-illuminating, but not serial; while they form a greater whole, the end of each is only the end of one novella, and not the conclusion of a larger novel. In fact, Marsch only appears in the second novella “Story” by virtue of a fictional by-line. There is a strong metafictional element throughout, brought out most fully in the third novella “V.M.T.” where the principal content consists of documentary fragments being considered in largely “random” sequence by a reader within the frame of the tale. 

All three stories arouse musings about personal, cultural, and biological identity. Cerberus guards Hades, the realm of the shades of the dead, and various spectral ancestries are at play in these pieces as well. The first story is called “The Fifth Head of Cerberus,” and it seems like Wolfe may have let that stand as the general title out of refusal to come up with a further name that would imply a greater unity to the multi-headed whole. The Cerberus in the book (a statue in the first story) is of the conventional three-headed sort, and the beyond-extra fifth head is a role that fits various characters based on their apparitional and fluctuating functions in the narratives. Indeed, for all of the links between the stories, they serve to raise questions about each other as much as to provide answers. 

One of the recurring questions is: Who–if anyone–is human in this story? Of course, that calls forth the necessary corollary: What is a human? To answer the second would require a crude didacticism far beneath this author. It is a signal of the artistry of this volume that the answer to the first is never entirely divulged.

Venus on the Half-Shell

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Venus on the Half-Shell [Amazon, Amazon (1975), Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Kilgore Trout (Philip José Farmer).

Kilgore Farmer Venus on the Half Shell 1975

Farmer Venus on the Half Shell

This interstellar picaresque novel by Philip José Farmer was written under a pseudonym taken from a fictional author described by Kurt Vonnegut. To pile Pelion upon Ossa, “Trout” has his main character refer often to the life and works of an imaginary 20th-century American science fiction writer named Jonathan Swift Somers III.

Many 21st-century readers will compare this book to Douglas Adams’ later Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Both begin with the destruction of terrestrial humanity, aside from the protagonist who then becomes a wanderer in outer space. The book is full of allusions to The Wizard of Oz, but I think that The Phantom Tollbooth is also a likely influence. The prose style reminds me of no one so much as R. A. Lafferty, for the sake of qualities I find difficult to describe. The humor in “Trout’s” book is a little more broad that what I usually find in Lafferty, the atmosphere decidedly less mystical. 

The book recounts the adventures of the banjo-playing Simon Wagstaff, a character who was promptly animated in my mind by the ghost of Duane Adam Rostoker. Following the calamity that visits the Earth during Simon’s visit to the Sphinx at Giza, he quickly acquires animal companions after the manner of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, but Simon’s are a dog and an owl, perhaps figuring his “lower” and “higher” awarenesses. 

The proper names in the story are a raft of anagrams, from the randy cat planet Shaltoon that is a hot Salon, to the planet Longalor of nomadic wheel-creatures who roll aLong. The beautiful android Chwortkap is a patChwork of the optimized DNA of hundreds of donors. These and many others put me in mind of James Branch Cabell, whose Jurgen may also have been a model for Farmer here. 

Although replete with frank sexual content, Venus on the Half-Shell is not really erotic at all. It merely refuses to repress the importance of sex in the dilemma of life. It contains a variety of episodes with different intelligent species that demonstrate the illusions and falsehoods that enslave societies and individuals (“yet therein is the mystery of redemption” –Liber B). The whole thing reads quite quickly and can be written off as a farce, serve as a puzzle, or even inspire serious reflection.