The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe
This novel is made up of three separate novellas, the title story originally published in Damon Knight’s Orbit 10 anthology in 1972, and the others written specifically for the novel.
Set on a two-planet system colonised by French settlers, the first story sees a prisoner relating the story of his childhood growing up in a brothel, run by his father, as he discovers he is really the latest in a string of clones, created by his father to investigate why his family never seems to progress further in society than he himself has. The brothel is visited by an anthropologist, Dr. Marsch, looking to investigate a theory that the original colonists of the planet were all killed by the shape-shifting aboriginal inhabitants, who subsequently assumed the form of the humans so perfectly that they forgot they were shape-shifters and now believe themselves to be human.
The second tale tells of the coming of age of an aboriginal boy, before the arrival of the Earth colonists, and the conflict between the hill-dwelling aboriginals, the marsh-dwelling natives and the mysterious shadow children.
The third story sees Dr Marsch imprisoned as a suspected spy, where he writes a journal telling of his expedition into the hill country looking to contact any surviving aboriginals, visiting the locations mentioned in the second novella.
The novel is not an easy read and can be confusing at times, but can be considered to be a novel essentially about identity — the protagonist of the first story discovers he is cloned, the boy in the second story goes on an aboriginal walkabout-style ritual to discover what it is to be a man, and Dr. Marsch tries to discover if he and the rest of the planet’s inhabitants are really aliens, or if the aboriginals still exist.
Gene Wolfe is often cited by other authors as one of the best writers of the science fiction field, and quite rightly so, but this is not one of his best works (it was, after all, only his second novel). The flow of the story was regularly interrupted by long parenthetical comments — by the time I had finished reading them, I had forgotten what the original sentence was about and had to go back and re-read the start of the sentence.
None of the characters are all that engaging or memorable and none of the stories are what you would call page-turners — this is a serious novel of ideas, not a pot-boiler.
Only recommended for fans of serious SF or Gene Wolfe completists.