A short book which has three short stories or rather two longish short stories and one novella.

Publication year: 1983
Format: Print
Page count: 192
Publisher: Arrow

All three stories are set on the twin worlds of Sainte Anna and Sainte Croix which seem to have had some alien aboriginal people and later colonized by the French. The towns on the planets seem to be pretty poor and in Sainte Croix things like slavery and child kidnappings are usual.

The Fifth Head of Cerberus

The titular story start quite low-key. A man, whose real name isn’t revealed in the story but who is called Number Five, is writing about his life. He and his brother David lived in a large mansion reared by their artificial tutor Mr. Million. At first they only rarely saw their father who seems to spend his days in his library/laboratory. David and the main character study a variety of books and sometimes go to the town’s library. Then one day the father summons the boy and starts doing some weird experiments on him. Apparently, the man pumps Number Five full of drugs which make the boy hallucinate or perhaps link him to another world or dimension. The man asks him questions about what the boy sees during the trips. Eventually, the drugs make the boy forget about hours and days of his life.

This was pretty horrific little tale, especially when the characters’ background and surrounding are revealed. Shades of doctor Frankenstein or doctor Moreau. Dr. Marsch visits the boy’s father.

‘A Story’ by John V. Marsch

This is the story of Sandwalker whose people live a pretty primitive life apparently in the Sainte Anne. They are hunters and gatherers without agriculture or even large tribes.

The story starts with the birth of twin boys. One of the twins is robbed only moments after birth. The other called Sandwalker is raised by his own people and he seems to be able to see through his twin’s eyes when he sleeps. When he’s fourteen years old Sandwalker is sent to find the cave where a priest lived. He’s hoping that the priest’s ghost will give him guidance. Along the way, he meets and in a weird way sort-of befriends the Shadow Children whom he first thinks are ghosts.

The Shadow Children turn out to be much more than that.

V.R.T.

This is a collection of fragmented notes from anthropologist Dr. Marsch. An officer is reading them in somewhat haphazard order. They are transcribed interviews and pages from Marsch’s journal. He’s researching Sainte Anne’s native people. He doesn’t believe that they exist anymore but his interviewees claim to have seen them. However, the stories seem too magical for him to believe them. About half of his writings are from the time he is or was in jail in Sainte Croix. His interrogation tapes are also included.

The notes aren’t in chronological order so they’re a bit hard to follow at times. The transcriptions of Marsch’s interviews are in his journal. He also meets a man who claims to be a native (or abo as they are called here) but Marsch is convinced that the man is only a crippled beggar. However, the beggar’s teen aged son knows the lands and so when Marsch starts an expedition into wilderness, he takes the boy along as his guide and servant.

We also get some glimpse about the officer who is reading them. For example, he lives in a military installation, has a personal slave and uses a slave girl. He also turns out to be pretty ambitious.

Marsch’s interrogator is convinced that Marsch is a spy. He has firm opinions about the people of both planets and he also defends slavery by saying that the only way a man can know that he’s free is by owing slaves.

The book has strong themes of colonialism and slavery, and it also examines what it means to be human. In the last story, one of the interviewed locals says that they are afraid that the native people will claim back the land that the colonists have taken. Therefore, the locals don’t report seeing the abos but instead shoot them. In the first story, the colonists are enslaving other colonists and at least some of the slaves have been apparently lobotomized. In some of Dr. Marsch’s extracts he describes how he and the (unnamed) boy are walking through the wilderness and shooting large game and predators for meat (and for fun, at least I got that impression). This brings to mind white men on safaris in Africa.

I love these sort of intertwined (short) stories and these have a clear connection not only through the setting and characters but the themes, too.