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The Fifth Head of Cerberus

4.01 of 5 stars 4.01  ·  rating details  ·  3,367 ratings  ·  174 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, 240 pages
Published March 1st 2010 by Orion Publishing Group (first published January 1st 1972)
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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
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
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
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
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
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:
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
Aug 29, 2007 Jacob rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  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
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
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
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.
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
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
(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 3 of 5 stars  ·  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 5 of 5 stars  ·  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
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.
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.
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."

This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
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
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
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
Sophie Dusting
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
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.
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
Leif Anderson
Wowza. While reading each single part of the three stories, everything seems to make sense, but assembling the context for these stories to make sense of the overall picture is an adventure. Usually I tend to like that sort of experience, but in this case, I felt like a lot of it went over my head, and I finished the book feeling like I missed something important. Despite this, I enjoyed the book overall; I would rather have something go over my head than have the author pander to the lowest com ...more
Didn't let me down at all.
Its fascinating how Wolfe leaves you trails of crumbs to pick up; I found myself flicking back to reread passages that I had discovered links to, just so I was sure I had them clear in my head (which I did). The mystery of the characters themselves are entrancing.
Certainly three stories to read together, only 'fifth head' could stand alone but then you read passages with the breadcrumbs and you know there is more.
Gorgeous, beautiful, entrancing.
this was quite good. read it!
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'.
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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 about Gene Wolfe...
The Shadow of the Torturer (The Book of the New Sun #1) Shadow & Claw (The Book of the New Sun #1-2) Sword & Citadel (The Book of the New Sun, #3-4) The Claw of the Conciliator The Sword of the Lictor

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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.” 4 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.” 3 likes
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