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The Fifth Head of Cerberus

4.01  ·  Rating Details ·  3,954 Ratings  ·  216 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 per
Paperback, 224 pages
Published March 1st 2010 by Orion Publishing Group (first published 1972)
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Jul 16, 2015 Terry rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: sci-fi
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 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 ...more
The Fifth Head of Cerberus: Three novellas about identity, memory, and colonization
Originally posted at Fantasy Literature
I don’t think I’m the only reader drawn to Gene Wolfe’s books — hoping to understand all the symbolism, subtleties, oblique details, unreliable narrators, and offstage events — and finding myself frustrated and confused, feeling like it’s my lack of sophistication and careful reading ability to blame. Wolfe is most famous for his amazing 4-volume THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN dying
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
Marc Aramini
Apr 09, 2013 Marc Aramini rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Feb 15, 2012 Nikki rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jan 26, 2011 Perry rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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:
Copied from my Blog review


The novel is a cycle of stories, consisting of three novellas which share two common planets – Sainte Croix and twin-planet Sainte Anne -, a common character – John V. Marsch, and common topics about identity, humanity, and memory.

The Fifth Head of Cerberus

The first novella is a coming-of-age story with a narrator called “Number Five” written from a first person point of view. He looks back at his youth on planet Sainte Croix, the murder of his father and his wa
Ross Lockhart
Jun 27, 2007 Ross Lockhart rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Aug 29, 2007 Jacob rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Kate Sherrod
Nov 08, 2012 Kate Sherrod rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jan 28, 2012 Simon rated it liked it
Shelves: sf-masterworks, sf
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
Dec 07, 2011 Sarah rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
Mar 05, 2016 Derek rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The stories address identity, self-identity, and the assumption or appropriation of identity, in a spiraling, fractal path, each one bouncing off the other in unexpected and exhilarating ways. In particular, "A Story", by John V. Marsch can be considered an exploration of identity in itself, but its meaning blooms when paired with the third, V.R.T., providing hints to events in that story.

The final profundity is the framing story of V.R.T., where John Marsch's case file and documents--disordered
Edward Rathke
Nov 20, 2015 Edward Rathke rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is maybe the most Wolfean Wolfe novel I've yet encountered, while also having almost nothing in common with the other books I've read by Wolfe.

It's intensely slippery and treads water in a number of genres and styles, doing each one better than just about anyone. When his prose is highly stylised and dense, it's more satisfying than just about any writer. And then the whole thing is so postmodern, but in ways more satisfying than maybe anyone or anything outside of John Fowles' The Magus.

Apr 25, 2016 Lady rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
There have been quite a lot of reviews of this book on Goodreads, so I think I'll make mine brief.

This was a brilliantly written book in which three novellas -- one a gothic horror novella about cloning, another a dreamscape fantasy novella of an alien world, the third being an almost Kafkaesque story of totalitarian imprisonment and suffering -- interconnect. This is pure literary science fiction, in which the plot is not the point, but the theme, and that theme is Colonialism, racism, and inst
Cori Dyson
My favorite novel of all time is still my favorite from high school, Wuthering Heights. It is really a sad and gothic story where the boy does not get the girl. Some may say that it is not a good ending. I, however, disagree, because despite the fact that the boy does not get the girl, it has a satisfying conclusion and ending, something this novel, especially the third novella, lacks.

I have read that perhaps Gene Wolfe purposely wrote an ambiguous ending to serve as a commentary on his theme.
Jul 01, 2016 Alendi rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Sin duda, un libro diferente. Tres historias independientes, aunque conectadas, que van dando pinceladas sobre los misterios de Saint Anne y Saint Croix, los planetas gemelos.

En ocasiones cuesta seguir el hilo de la trama, porque está retorcida intencionadamente, con multitud de pequeños saltos.

Me han encantado tanto la narrativa y el mundo que ha creado como la elegancia con la que lo va presentando. La mayor pega que le veo es que, en mi opinión, de las tres historias que tiene el libro, sólo
Buck Ward
This was my first Gene Wolfe. My impression is that he is a skilled and talented writer. The Fifth Head of Cereberus is three stories that take place on the twin planets of Sainte Croix and Sainte Anne. The first story is almost Victorian, elegant prose but not at all stilted. It has almost a flavor, just the slightest taste, of steampunk.

The recurring character plays only a minor role in the first story. He doesn't appear in the second story at all, rather, he is its author. It is a dreamtime f
Jun 27, 2014 Stephen rated it really liked it
Shelves: futures, sci-fi
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
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
Dec 21, 2012 Liviu rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Feb 16, 2013 Banner rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: sci-fi, alien
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
Jul 30, 2010 Dave rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
(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
Jul 09, 2012 martha rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
May 15, 2008 Andreas rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Dec 01, 2015 Kevin rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Spoilers Below

Cloning, body stealing, cannibalism. live genetic modification, multiple counts of incest, selling/pimping your clones, etc......

I could see why this would do so well, for it came out in a time where those things were frowned upon, and the forbidden is always more tempting than the status quo.

Reading this now, I'm not even batting an eyelid.

"I have a near perfect memory", hello Book of the New Sun.

With so many things being stated as "happening before Christmas" I find it funny that
Gustavo Muñoz (Akito)
Describing this book as tangling would be a mistake; the three stories interweave with such precision that you can't help but marvel at Wolfe's intellect.
There is not much to say about this book. It is yet another outstanding work by Gene Wolfe, and anyone with a taste for science fiction and good literature should give it a try.
Feb 18, 2013 Dylan rated it liked it
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.
Jan 18, 2016 Emily rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fantasy, sci-fi
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."

Dec 05, 2015 Josh rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science-fiction
This was my first Gene Wolfe book. I liked it quite a bit even though I was bewildered for maybe like one-third of it. It's comprised of three separate novellas that form something of a nonlinear cohesive whole. The first was brilliant. I had no clue what was happening in the second. The third was more comprehensible again but internally also nonlinear, just because that's now Wolfe rolls, and that's something I gather his fans especially like about him. So as a whole not at all straightforward, ...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
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“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.” 5 likes
“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.” 5 likes
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