The Fifth Head of Cerberus
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The Fifth Head of Cerberus

4.01 of 5 stars 4.01  ·  rating details  ·  2,666 ratings  ·  146 reviews
Back in print for the first time in more than a decade, Gene Wolfe's The Fifth Head of Cerberus is a universally acknowledged masterpiece of science fiction by one of the field's most brilliant writers.

Far out from Earth, two sister planets, Saint Anne and Saint Croix, circle each other in an eternal dance. It is said a race of shapeshifters once lived here, only to perish...more
Paperback, 256 pages
Published March 15th 1994 by Orb Books (first published January 1st 1972)
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Community Reviews

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Brad
I feel a failure now that I've finished The Fifth Head of Cerberus. It is good. Very good. I see that. But I can only muster mild "like" for the thing, and I feel as though I must have missed something along the way in my insomnia reading haze. And I can't really see myself going back to redress the situation because I just don't feel connected to Gene Wolfe's work.

I read what Ursula K. LeGuin says about the book,
A subtle, ingenious, poetic and picturesque book; the uncertaintly principle embodi
...more
Nikki
Read this for a group read -- the first time I've managed to get myself organised to do that in a long time. I have a backlog as long as my arm of books that were picked for discussion in that group! And they always pick interesting ones.

This was my first Gene Wolfe book, so I wasn't entirely sure what to expect. I don't know whether my brain just doesn't work in quite the right way to fully 'get' the story, or if everyone else is equally at sea. I kind of want to nod wisely and pretend I follow...more
Marc Aramini
For every reader that believes Wolfe allusions are well-wrought and indicative of a greater back story and that there is a palimpsest to get to the bottom of, there are others who insist that the surface story, with all its mysteries and contradictions, is all that there is - atmosphere over form. The second group has forgotten something - Gene Wolfe is that rarest of men - a spiritually inclined engineer with a love both of literature, mystery novels, and pulp science fiction - not to mention t...more
Ross Lockhart
I hadn’t read Gene Wolfe before, though I’d read of him and had seen pictures of his enormous moustache. I actually thought he was dead, thanks to a recent Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction tribute issue. I read this on the recommendation of Jay Lake, who had read my review of Samuel R. Delany’s Einstein Intersection and commented that Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus said many of the same things. The three novellas comprising The Fifth Head of Cerberus form one of the finest examples of...more
Perry
Gene Wolfe is difficult to praise highly enough without sounding unconvincing. One can urge people to read his work, claim that he's one of the greatest living writers in the English language regardless of genre (indeed, perhaps the greatest), one can ramble on about his virtues for hours to friends and strangers, and in the end, to those who have not read him, the claims start to sound unhinged, even deranged. "Aren't you overselling him just a tad?" they inevitably ask.

To this I can only say:...more
Kate Sherrod
I have definitely joined the camp of those who consider The Fifth Head of Cerberus to be set in the same universe as Book of the New Sun/Long Sun/Short Sun. Indeed, the predicament in which Urth finds itself in BotNS now feels like the wages of the sins committed in the establishment of the societies described in Cerberus. Set on a double planet* some twenty light-years from Earth/Urth a good hundred years (at least) since its colonization by the French, who named one planet St. Anne and the oth...more
Simon
I've learned that when reading Wolfe, one should expect an oblique story, a narrative that makes little sense on the surface, who's meaning must be gleaned by penetrating the layers of the story, picking up on cryptic clues and piecing it altogether upon reflection after finishing the book. This is no exception.

One of the themes at the center of this story is identity. What it is that makes us different when we are physically the same and how can we tell the difference between the real thing and...more
Jacob
Aug 29, 2007 Jacob rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: those willing to forgive the book its cover
There's a preoccupation with doubling and shifting identity in The Fifth Head of Cerberus that brought Jan Potocki's The Manuscript Found in Saragossa to mind, though the two books are otherwise quite dissimilar. There's none of Potocki's fascination with the occult here, and, as another reviewer aptly observed, Wolfe's concerns are in fact political: domination, conquest, identity, hybridity. The two books differ as well in their shape and topology: While Manuscript is constructed as a series o...more
Sarah
Three linked novellas set on the sister planets of Sainte Anne and Sainte Croix, each with a different tone and focus but a common question: what really happened to Sainte Anne's aboriginal inhabitants? Each made me want to go back and reread the previous for clues that I had missed. The intricate balance of the three is fantastic. This is a hard one to discuss without spoiling it, so I'm not going to say much.
Liviu
3 linked novellas in a famous book published ~40 years ago; the first one which gives the title is excellent and deserves all the accolades; on a strange world, a strange boy recounts his experiences from childhood and as we slowly tease what's what we realize how much this novella packs in; the dated aspects (eg the French in space...) are not jarring though one is aware of them in the background

however the 2nd and 3rd novellas are much weaker - the second is a nature people story and I never f...more
Dave
(read this review at my blog)

In The Fifth Head of Cerberus (1972), a poor colony world is haunted by rumors of a vanished aboriginal race. The status of the natives forms a thematic link between the three novellas in the volume, and is framed by this anthropological theory, mentioned in the first story:

“Veil’s Hypothesis supposes the abos to have possessed the ability to mimic mankind perfectly. Veil thought that when the ships came from Earth the abos killed everyone and took their places and t
...more
martha
Jul 09, 2012 martha rated it 3 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Kelly, Kristen
Recommended to martha by: Ben
Shelves: genre, kindle, 2012
Three interconnected novellas about identity and the rumors of aboriginal life on a pair of twin planets colonized by humans. I loved the first and last ones, though really disliked the middle one, hence only three stars. (After the last novella, the middle one makes a lot more sense and is more interesting in context, but that didn't help when I was struggling through it.)

The worldbuilding was good and interesting (the way the society is revealed to the reader is particularly good in the first...more
Dylan
Great, if somewhat inscrutable, collection of three loosely related novellas. The Fifth Head of Cerberus is the primordial version of Dan Simmons' Hyperion, slightly more literary and slightly less robust. It's a masterwork of theme and tone, and as with all such works, it has the potential to disappoint. Avoid if you require cohesive storylines with strong resolutions.
J Frederick
A deep and rewarding read. When you finish, check out Robert Borski's work on it here: http://www.wolfewiki.com/pmwiki/pmwik...
DMS
Jun 17, 2012 DMS rated it 5 of 5 stars
Shelves: library
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Darran Mclaughlin
Well I'm convinced. This guy is clearly a genius. I am officially joining the church of Wolfe. This novel is very sophisticated indeed. Having read this and the Book of the New Sun sequence I am struck by the beauty of Wolfe's prose, the intricacy of his plotting and the mystery and depth of his writing.

To some extent this novel explores similar themes to Bladerunner and Battlestar Galactica, but Wolfe always seems to stray outside of the conventional Science Fiction tropes. There are aspects o...more
Outis
Do not read the introduction! It's spoilery and full of wrong.

Yes, this book is a mindfuck. It's at times intriguing, surprising, funny, shocking... or boring. It's not pulp. PKD for instance draws you into his pageturners. In contrast, the three stories of this book were a difficult read for me. Unlike other readers, I found the first part to be the least engaging by the way.
It's not so much that I had trouble making out the main puzzle to which the narrative returns time and again. I may have...more
Sophie Dusting
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Banner
3 novellas and one book. 3 stories in one universe. 3 worlds one species or is there? Ok that last one was a little contrived .

The new world phenomena of our past seems to be repeated in the exploration and settlement of two new inhabitable worlds, that are closer to earth than you may think.
The new settlers have a different philosophy and a liking of genetic manipulation.
However, they have been there awhile when our story begins. The original occupants seem to have been all but forgotten or reg...more
Maree  ♫ Light's Shadow ♪
It's difficult when reading a series of stories to give a proper rating. There are three novellas packaged in this book, and I very much enjoyed the first one, very much did not enjoy the second one and was okay with the third. I figure that averages out pretty well to a three star read.

I've read that Wolfe is a difficult writer who doesn't slow down for his readers and expects them to be thinking as they read. I'd be okay with that if some parts of his story weren't already so tedious to read....more
Lee
What did I think? I don't know what to think. I consider myself widely read and reasonably capable of understanding things in general, but I have to say this book just completely had me mystified. I have read it and I have no idea what it was that I read. I understood the story itself as it was happening, I am just failing to put it all together into anything that resembles a complete story. The last book was the worst for me, as I felt when I finished I had picked up a random book and read the...more
Andreas
May 15, 2008 Andreas rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: all SF fans
What a book. The first 2 stories are intriguing but leave many things open. The last story reveals a good deal of the background and provides the missing pieces. Not all of course or it wouldn't be a Gene Wolfe book. A second read is definitely required to understand what lies under the surface and to solve the puzzles. This is a book that can be read multiple times.

The main topics are very interesting. I liked the startling world with its weird natives, the violent history and a society that al...more
Nick Wellings
Mesmerising, self contained in its sure handed originality, through composed and unimpeachable in the unshowy veracity of its literate, strange-yet-familiar presentation of another place and culture. Quietly brilliant and not a little perplexing and mysterious: no wonder Le Guin says 'he leaves me speechless'.
Dan
Apr 26, 2011 Dan rated it 5 of 5 stars
Shelves: sci-fi
Wow, folks were right about this one. Gene Wolfe's subtlety is something I really enjoy, and the way these three novellas are intertwined is very interesting. Each story helps you understand the next, and I want to go back and read them all again now.
Emily
I have to read this again to make better sense of it.

As Neil Gaiman commented, "Reading Gene Wolfe is dangerous work. It's a knife-throwing act, and like all good knife-throwing acts, you may lose fingers, toes, earlobes or eyes in the process."

Eek!
John
This is about the most literary sci-fi I've yet read. The language is quite wonderful, and the plot engages your brain in an almost existential way. The last novella/chapter in particular was as brilliant a mind fuck as I've ever had.
Stephen
I quite liked this book. Actually, it is a collection of three shorter stories with a single unifying theme, and that is what makes it a book. I liked the first story, struggled to get the second story, and then really liked the third story. I am glad that I went all the way through the second story because much of it is explained in the third story. It is like something out of focus which suddenly comes into focus.

Gene Wolfe has a very fine narrative style. He manages to make the stories intere...more
Stephen Case
I can’t keep beginning reviews of Gene Wolfe’s work with “one of the best books I’ve ever read” or “one of my favorite books of all time,” so I’ll begin instead with Ursula K. Le Guin’s blurb on the cover of my edition. She says that The Fifth Head of Cerberus is “a subtle, ingenious, poetic, and picturesque book; the uncertainty principle embodied in brilliant fiction.” I like that, especially the first part: this book is a subtle and ingenious puzzle, but it’s one clothed in poetic and picture...more
David Spencer
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Max
Mar 09, 2011 Max rated it 5 of 5 stars
Shelves: sf
I don't feel that I have much to say that can really add to the already extensive conversation regarding this book's merits; I'll just say that I gave it the four stars because I felt that the second of the three novellas in the book dragged a bit (in spite of its short length) and because in general I just didn't get quite as much out of this book as I was hoping to. Saying something like that about a Gene Wolfe book is just inviting people to tell you you missed something or didn't get it, and...more
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Gene Wolfe is an American science fiction and fantasy writer. He is noted for his dense, allusive prose as well as the strong influence of his Catholic faith, to which he converted after marrying a Catholic. He is a prolific short story writer and a novelist, and has won many awards in the field.

The Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award is given by SFWA for ‘lifetime achievement in science fict...more
More about Gene Wolfe...
The Shadow of the Torturer (The Book of the New Sun #1) Shadow and Claw (The Book of the New Sun, #1-2) Sword and Citadel (The Book of the New Sun, #3-4) The Claw of the Conciliator (The Book of the New Sun #2) The Sword of the Lictor (The Book of the New Sun #3)

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“Seeing him brought in, has, I think, saved me from losing my mind; for that I do not thank him-sanity, after all is only reason applied to human affairs, and when this reason, applied over years, has resulted in disaster, destruction, despair, misery, starvation, and rot, the mind is correct to abandon it. This decision to discard reason, I see now, is not the last but the first reasonable act; and this insanity we are taught to fear consists in nothing but responding naturally and instinctively rather than with the culturally acquired, mannered thing called reason; an insane man talks nonsense because like a bird or a cat he is too sensible to talk sense.” 3 likes
“Each of us finds his way, his place; we rattle around the universe until everything fits; this is life; this is science, or something better than science.” 2 likes
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