Last night’s Wolfe discussion knitted and warbled! Attendance was high, dinner was stimulating, so much that we got in front of the camera a few minutes late (forgive us, Nikita!). It was a pleasure to be in the presence of some fun-loving scholars with a firm grasp of the text. (At least as firm a grasp as Wolfe allows, which is something like the grasp a Labrador retriever has of an iPad; you know it’s important, but – FLAN!) Now for the discussion notes:
An anthropologist from Earth comes visiting the twin planetary systems of Saint Anne and Saint Croix. In a colonial civilization mired in infinitely replicating and simultaneously decaying dualism, this scientist is perusing facts to verify the legend of a race of aboriginal planetary natives reputed to be shapeshifters. Shapeshifters, it is alluded to, who may have already supplanted most of the planets’ human beings.
As Meg said, “The book offers so much of the ‘Clue’ mystery – so many parts, the wrench, the living room…the clones, the scientist – But never pulls it snug together.” It’s intentional, and it works! It is as though Wolfe uses blocks of unknowability, inscrutable puzzles, as matters of form; they are never meant to be fully illuminated.
Erik noted, Wolfe is Catholic-with-a-capital-C, so he is definitely portraying Fallen worlds.
Meg, who has read this book 4 or 5 times, (and taught it) observed, “Everything has meaning in this work – but what does it add up to?”
The discussion turned to the multilayered shifting footing of the realities in the book, at least the glimpses of reality the “unreliable narrators” afford us. It is beyond just peeling through the layers of an onion, it’s as if the onion layers are braided. Erik said, “If everything is repeating, you lose dynamics.” David followed up with, “Like cancer, it reproduces so much it will kill itself.”
Erik identified this book as coming from “a zone of science fiction that is anthropologically driven.” Meg verified that it was part of the new wave in the 60s and 70s. “A departure from the hard science sci-fi, into sci-fi for the softer sciences – psychology, anthropology, linguistics, etc. – yielding writers like Le Guin, Wolfe, Dick, etc.” David called it, “A changing of the sci-fi guard at the end of the 50s.”
Meg told an excellent story about the time she met Gene Wolfe at a church service in suburban Illinois, while creating a sci-fi course curriculum (at SFSU) featuring the Wolfe-man himself! It would be a disservice to tell the story for her, so look her up.
L. Ron Hubbard’s “Fear” novella. Very good; recommended by Erik Davis.
Nikita’s description of The Anti-Psychiatry Museum in L.A., funded by Scientologists, and how some of their most effective methods are borrowed from psychiatry, so they are very against it.
As you can see, toward the end, the discussion took a few digressions into other forms of science fiction which we are already living, here an now. And also some exploration of the religious backgrounds of various sci-fi writers, who, though they may espouse certain dogmatic religious views (Catholic, Mormon, Scientologist, etc.) also maintain
One thing I must say for Gene Wolfe’s The Fifth Head Of Cerberus: it stimulated sustained and fruitful discussion and, remarkably, did it without the novel being sufficiently precise about anything. It left us discovering that there would be many insights to gain by a careful rereading, though no more certitude. (Wikipedia reports that, in a letter to Neil Gaiman, Wolfe wrote: “My definition of good literature is that which can be read by an educated reader, and reread with increased pleasure.”) It’s a conversation-starting book, but definitely not conversation-finishing. We had to change subjects to finish the conversation. The Fifth Head Of Cerberus is most certainly worth the read, but it will behoove you to make peace with uncertainty beforehand.
See you next week for Dick’s Martian Time Slip!
Thank you for reading! Reading Rules!