Oh Gene Wolfe why can't I quit you?! Constantly frustrated by your boring viewpoint characters (your secondary ones tend to be so much more interestinOh Gene Wolfe why can't I quit you?! Constantly frustrated by your boring viewpoint characters (your secondary ones tend to be so much more interesting!), your constant practice of leaving out the 'good bits' of the story (only to refer to them, if at all, obliquely and second-hand later), and your monomaniacal need to make every story a goddamn puzzle! But I keep coming back for more...keep hoping this time it will be different and I'll get the full experience, be completely immersed, not just find a few excellent bits and flounder amongst the rest. I know it's not you, it's me. I'm just not a good enough reader for you...but dammit I can't stop trying!
So here we are with _The Fifth Head of Cerberus_. I will admit right off that even the title of this one confuses me. One thing to note: if you don’t want a bunch of mysteries ruined before you even start and you have the SF Masterworks edition I read then *don’t read the frickin’ introduction!* Damn, I hate it when they write intros to books that spoil key plot and character elements, what’s up with that? Of course, after you finish you might find it helpful in figuring some things out. ‘Fifth Head’ is really a set of three interconnected novellas as opposed to a ‘true’ novel. All of them take place on the binary sister worlds of Ste. Anne and Ste. Croix, apparently initially colonized by French settlers who seem to have wiped out the original aboriginal population and who were themselves supplanted by a succeeding wave of colonization from Earth.
The first section, the eponymous ‘The Fifth Head of Cerberus’, is narrated by a man recalling his strange youth in a brothel on the world of Ste. Croix. He tells us of his early life with his brother David as they matured under the watchful eye of their robot guardian-cum-teacher Mr. Million and the all-pervasive though mysterious presence of their somewhat sinister father. Rest assured not all things are as they appear (it’s a Gene Wolfe story after all), but I won’t spoil the apparent revelations about the man and his family. Of course since it *is* a Gene Wolfe story many of these ‘revelations’ are oblique and circumstantial to say the least…so take your conclusions with a grain of salt. Suffice it to say that Wolfe’s obsessions with identity and memory play a central role in this story and the fact that many of the key events of the tale happen ‘off-screen’ (or are expressed via the unreliable first-hand narration of the main character…damn Mr. Wolfe loves him some unreliable narration) leaves any final conclusion dubious at best. This is primarily a tale of a son coming to the point in his life where he must come to terms with his own identity and challenge his father for supremacy…or is he really challenging himself? Hmmm...
The next tale, ‘”A Story”, by John V. Marsch’, is perhaps both the most straightforward and at the same time the most confusing section of the book. It purports to be a tale written by John Marsch, an anthropologist from Earth who has come to visit the twin system in the hopes of discovering some remnant of the mysterious native ‘Abos’, and who played a minor role in the previous story. The narrative is written as though it were a folktale of the Abos of Ste. Anne and details the adventures of John Sandwalker, his estranged twin brother John Eastwind, and the conflict between their two tribes: the hill dwelling ‘Free People’ and the marsh dwelling cannibals of the meadowmeres. There are also the mysterious ‘Shadow Children’ who may simply be magical creatures of the Otherworld, or perhaps they’re extraterrestrials…then again could they actually be the original natives? Whoever they are, they are a mysterious and protean group that seems to exist in a liminal state between the real world and the dreamworld of the mind and who play the role of both bogey-man and preternatural benefactors simultaneously. Identity and consciousness again play key roles in the story and I must admit that the main character’s habit of apparently passing between the ‘real’ world and the ‘dream world’ without notable cues and the way in which memory and perception of the here-and-now seemed to blend together made this section a bit challenging for me.
The final section, ‘V.R.T.’, veers into the Kafkaesque as our old friend, the apparently earth-born anthropologist John Marsch, travels from Ste. Anne to Ste. Croix where he runs afoul of the local authorities. This section is primarily composed of snippets of text from various sources: Marsch’s journals and scientific papers from his field work on Ste. Anne undertaken in the hopes of finding a living remnant of the original inhabitants of the planet, and his memoirs and interrogation tapes from his time in prison on Ste. Croix. All of these disparate elements are being reviewed (in a haphazard sequence and piecemeal I might add) by a local agent of the police who has been asked to decide on Marsch’s ultimate fate. The overarching fear and paranoia endemic to a police state play a large role in this section as do, once again, the issues of identity and memory. The ennui and total disinterest of the police agent as he reviews the sad facts of the case of Dr. Marsch brings into sharp focus the horror and paranoia that underlies this tale. Our confusion (or mine anyway) is only exacerbated when these ‘facts’ as reported by Marsch become less and less reliable as he obviously becomes more and more unhinged by the events that overtake him. Or does he? Perhaps something mysterious really did happen during his journey to ‘the back of beyond’ on St. Anne in which he had only one local guide (who claimed to be half-Abo) as a companion. What mystery, if any, did he discover out there and what happened to him as a result? I’ll leave it to you to discover this.
Did I mention that legends state the Abos were shapeshifters? And that there are theories not only that they still exist, but may even have subsumed the human population so effectively that they have in essence become the human population? Well, let’s just add that to the pile of mysteries Wolfe brings to his set of tales. This is definitely a ‘Wolfean’ story: many, if not all, of Wolfe’s primary hobby-horses are in evidence, from a fascination with memory and identity, to unreliable narrators and key pieces of the puzzle never being revealed (or only revealed after the fact and behind a curtain as it were). If that’s your bag you’ll like this one and it will definitely bear re-reading and give you plenty of food for thought…I’m still left with an empty feeling inside though. As with nearly every adventure I take with Mr. Wolfe I just wish I was better equipped to parse his lingo, to see between the cracks in that way he so obviously wants me to. Sometimes I think I succeed, if only in small way, but I still end up coming away thinking: ‘that would have been an awesome story if it just came together and maybe made a bit more sense!’...more
I’m not quite sure what it was about this book that didn’t quite gel for me, but while I appreciate the scope of what Walton attempted I2.5 – 3 stars
I’m not quite sure what it was about this book that didn’t quite gel for me, but while I appreciate the scope of what Walton attempted I wasn’t super impressed by the results. The basic premise is that Apollo and Athene decide to pick an out-of-the-way island in a backwater of the timestream and attempt to build Plato’s Republic in a way that is both free from outside obstructions and which will not unduly affect the course of history. To this end Athene cherry-picks thinkers and philosophers from throughout time who have apparently prayed to her asking to be able to make the Republic real in order to act as the ‘Masters’ of the Republic and the architects of its initial set-up. First nit-pick: I found it a bit strange that she was able to find so many people that fit this criteria, even well into and beyond the modern age. I can see there being thinkers desirous of putting Plato’s theories to the acid test, but that they all also specifically prayed to Athene about it stretched my suspension of disbelief a bit. Both Athene and Apollo then decide to incarnate themselves so they can get a human’s-eye-view of the proceedings though while Apollo takes the hard route of actually laying down his powers and taking up humanity, Athene cheats and simply morphs herself to appear human. In addition to the Masters, Athene also provides the first generation of 10-year-old children to act as the first ‘true’ generation of possible Philosopher-Kings by culling the slave markets of various eras for appropriate candidates.
The story is told via multiple viewpoints, some of them the Masters, others the Children (primarily Simmea a ‘true’ human slave culled from the ancient world and Pytheas, actually the incarnate form of Apollo) and revolves around two main axes: the problems encountered by the Masters in their attempts to make Plato’s Republic more than just a thought experiment & the moral and intellectual quandaries with which they must wrestle as a result; and the growing relationship between Simmea and Pytheas and the ways in which the latter attempts to gain unique insight from his human condition. I think one of my problems was that I didn’t find any of the characters particularly compelling: Simmea seemed to me to be a bit of a Mary Sue…she’s not perfect by any means, but I did get the distinct feeling that Walton identified more than a little bit with her and seemed to stack certain things in her favour; Athene and Apollo seem kind of dim considering they’re gods (more on that anon) and Kebes, who could have been an interesting character given his role of fly in the ointment of Utopia, was presented perhaps not quite as a villain, but certainly in about as unsympathetic a light as could be conceived without making him one. The most interesting character, unsurprisingly, was Sokrates. He is brought late in the game to the Republic by Athene for reasons I don’t fully understand and is perhaps the true fly in the ointment as he fulfills his role of ‘gadfly’ and asks questions that many of the Masters (and certainly Athene) would rather had been left unasked.
Speaking of Athene, neither she nor her brother Apollo come across as very bright, and while Walton makes a point of stressing that these gods are neither omnipotent nor omniscient they seemed a little stupider than I would have expected even a limited deity to be. The afore-mentioned shanghai-ing of Sokrates to the Republic is one obvious example. I mean did Athene really think that Sokrates wouldn’t stir the pot if he was brought to this Platonic Utopia, especially as it was apparently done against his will? What was she hoping to achieve? It was never really made clear to me. An even bigger issue was why would Athene and Apollo have even thought this project was a good idea at all? I must admit that I come to this from the point of view I came to hold after reading the Republic many years ago: namely that I don’t think Plato was in any way drawing a plan for what he really thought was the best of all possible states, but rather that he was ironically pointing out how fruitless the quest for Utopia was. His ‘perfect’ state was so far divorced from anything I thought human nature could achieve, or be comfortable with, that I find it hard to believe a god would have thought he was being serious…of course that’s more an issue with my interpretation of Plato than with any ‘facts’ of the case. Still, it made me wonder how the gods in question could have been surprised, or disappointed, when it all went wrong, as it of course inevitably does.
It was definitely an ambitious project to write a novel that tries to picture what would actually happen were Plato’s Republic to be attempted, but ultimately it didn’t really work for me. There were definitely plenty of thought-provoking issues raised so on that end kudos to Walton, but as a story I just didn’t find the narrative all that compelling. ...more
What can I say? I find myself constantly underwhelmed by this series despite loving other books by Perez-Reverte. I guess I just want a reall2.5 stars
What can I say? I find myself constantly underwhelmed by this series despite loving other books by Perez-Reverte. I guess I just want a really good historical swashbuckler with a bit of meat on it and despite having been generally underwhelmed by each book in the series so far I keep hoping that Perez-Reverte warms up in the next one. So far in my mind this hasn't happened.
There's nothing terrible about this story: we get to see Captain Alatriste through the eyes of our narrator Inigo (aside from those infuriating portions of the story where Inigo is not present but we are somehow still given a first person view of events...a nit pick perhaps, but if your whole conceit is that this is a first person memoir then you ought to figure out how to handle this kind of situation without contradicting the whole support structure of your text - you're a writer, it's your job isn't it?!) Okay with that off my chest: Inigo is now a bit older (he's the ripe old age of fifteen here) and is following Alatriste to the war in Flanders, specifically around the city of Breda. Inigo's role as a mochilero (basically a boy who follows the army around and does odd jobs for the soldiers) means he gets to see a lot of the action up close and personal, but isn't technically a combatant (not a paid one anyway). He is starting to see Alatriste in a somewhat more complicated way, it's not all just hero-worship anymore, but he is still devoted to his mentor and the squad of veterans of which Alatriste is the de facto commander.
In a nutshell the story is about Alatriste and Inigo as they struggle with the difficulties of war: not just the enemy, but hunger, boredom and even insurrection and I don't know if there's really much more for me to say. Not much of the story left a lasting impression on me. There really didn't seem to be much plot going on here aside from: this is what war in the era of Spain's fading glory was like and I'm going to insert Alatriste and Inigo into the middle of it. If the characters really jumped off the page then perhaps that by itself would be worth it, but I'm starting to think that Alatriste is perhaps a bit *too* laconic. We see him from a remove as it is given that almost everything is coming from Inigo's point of view, but when you add to that the taciturnity of Alatriste which sometimes borders on the ridiculous then it's really hard to identify with the titular 'hero' of the series. It's almost like getting all of the melancholy taciturnity of Athos from The Three Musketeers without any of Dumas' excellent dialogue to bolster it. A mention is made of Alatriste's past, when he was apparently more adventurous and outgoing, and I found myself wishing Perez-Reverte had written a story about *that* epsiode which would have had the virtue of being more exciting and not having to filter everything through the eyes and mouth of Inigo. As for Inigo: I must admit to not being much of a fan...he's a pretty boring character as far as I can tell and his main character traits seems to be devotion to Alatriste, courage in the face of adversity, and undying devotion to a girl he knows wants to kill him.
Anyway...not sure I will muster the strength to continue with this series. Every new book still seems like set-up to some overarching story arc that never ultimately materializes. ...more