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The Fifth Head of Cerberus

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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 when men came. But one man believes they can still be found, somewhere in the back of the beyond.

In The Fifth Head of Cerberus, Wolfe skillfully interweaves three bizarre tales to create a mesmerizing pattern: the harrowing account of the son of a mad genius who discovers his hideous heritage; a young man's mythic dreamquest for his darker half; the bizarre chronicle of a scientists' nightmarish imprisonment. Like an intricate, braided knot, the pattern at last unfolds to reveal astonishing truths about this strange and savage alien landscape.

252 pages, Paperback

First published April 1, 1972

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About the author

Gene Wolfe

475 books2,880 followers
Gene Wolfe was an American science fiction and fantasy writer. He was 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 was 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 fiction and/or fantasy.’ Wolfe joins the Grand Master ranks alongside such legends as Connie Willis, Michael Moorcock, Anne McCaffrey, Robert Silverberg, Ursula K. Le Guin, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and Joe Haldeman. The award will be presented at the 48th Annual Nebula Awards Weekend in San Jose, CA, May 16-19, 2013.

While attending Texas A&M University Wolfe published his first speculative fiction in The Commentator, a student literary journal. Wolfe dropped out during his junior year, and was drafted to fight in the Korean War. After returning to the United States he earned a degree from the University of Houston and became an industrial engineer. He edited the journal Plant Engineering for many years before retiring to write full-time, but his most famous professional engineering achievement is a contribution to the machine used to make Pringles potato crisps. He lived in Barrington, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago.

A frequent Hugo nominee without a win, Wolfe has nevertheless picked up several Nebula and Locus Awards, among others, including the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement and the 2012 Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award. He is also a member of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.


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Displaying 1 - 30 of 495 reviews
Profile Image for Terry .
394 reviews2,141 followers
October 23, 2022
2022 re-read thoughts: Well, I think I grokked this one a bit better this time and re-reading definitely pays dividends with Wolfe. I think I came to like the second story "'A Story,' by John V. Marsch" the best this time around despite finding the beginning a bit slow going. I also enjoyed the way Wolfe played with viewpoints and his use of multiple sources for the final story "V. R. T." and it is probably the one for which I have the most questions and which I hope my next re-read may bring closer to the light. I still wish I was a bit closer to Wolfe's ideal reader such that I was better able to pick up on the (very) subtle nuances and clues that are interspersed amongst the stories on my initial reading of his work, but I have to admit that I keep looking forward to my re-reads of the Wolfe books I have thus far tackled in a way that I would not have expected after my first read of any of them. Kudos Gene!

Original review: 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 find a few excellent bits and flounder amongst the rest. I know it's not you, it's me. I'm just not a good enough reader for you...but dammit I can't stop trying!

So here we are with _The Fifth Head of Cerberus_. I will admit right off that even the title of this one confuses me. One thing to note: if you don’t want a bunch of mysteries ruined before you even start and you have the SF Masterworks edition I read then *don’t read the frickin’ introduction!* Damn, I hate it when they write intros to books that spoil key plot and character elements, what’s up with that? Of course, after you finish you might find it helpful in figuring some things out. ‘Fifth Head’ is really a set of three interconnected novellas as opposed to a ‘true’ novel. All of them take place on the binary sister worlds of Ste. Anne and Ste. Croix, apparently initially colonized by French settlers who seem to have wiped out the original aboriginal population and who were themselves supplanted by a succeeding wave of colonization from Earth.

The first section, the eponymous ‘The Fifth Head of Cerberus’, is narrated by a man recalling his strange youth in a brothel on the world of Ste. Croix. He tells us of his early life with his brother David as they matured under the watchful eye of their robot guardian-cum-teacher Mr. Million and the all-pervasive though mysterious presence of their somewhat sinister father. Rest assured not all things are as they appear (it’s a Gene Wolfe story after all), but I won’t spoil the apparent revelations about the man and his family. Of course since it *is* a Gene Wolfe story many of these ‘revelations’ are oblique and circumstantial to say the least…so take your conclusions with a grain of salt. Suffice it to say that Wolfe’s obsessions with identity and memory play a central role in this story and the fact that many of the key events of the tale happen ‘off-screen’ (or are expressed via the unreliable first-hand narration of the main character…damn Mr. Wolfe loves him some unreliable narration) leaves any final conclusion dubious at best. This is primarily a tale of a son coming to the point in his life where he must come to terms with his own identity and challenge his father for supremacy…or is he really challenging himself? Hmmm...

The next tale, ‘”A Story”, by John V. Marsch’, is perhaps both the most straightforward and at the same time the most confusing section of the book. It purports to be a tale written by John Marsch, an anthropologist from Earth who has come to visit the twin system in the hopes of discovering some remnant of the mysterious native ‘Abos’, and who played a minor role in the previous story. The narrative is written as though it were a folktale of the Abos of Ste. Anne and details the adventures of John Sandwalker, his estranged twin brother John Eastwind, and the conflict between their two tribes: the hill dwelling ‘Free People’ and the marsh dwelling cannibals of the meadowmeres. There are also the mysterious ‘Shadow Children’ who may simply be magical creatures of the Otherworld, or perhaps they’re extraterrestrials…then again could they actually be the original natives? Whoever they are, they are a mysterious and protean group that seems to exist in a liminal state between the real world and the dreamworld of the mind and who play the role of both bogey-man and preternatural benefactors simultaneously. Identity and consciousness again play key roles in the story and I must admit that the main character’s habit of apparently passing between the ‘real’ world and the ‘dream world’ without notable cues and the way in which memory and perception of the here-and-now seemed to blend together made this section a bit challenging for me.

The final section, ‘V.R.T.’, veers into the Kafkaesque as our old friend, the apparently earth-born anthropologist John Marsch, travels from Ste. Anne to Ste. Croix where he runs afoul of the local authorities. This section is primarily composed of snippets of text from various sources: Marsch’s journals and scientific papers from his field work on Ste. Anne undertaken in the hopes of finding a living remnant of the original inhabitants of the planet, and his memoirs and interrogation tapes from his time in prison on Ste. Croix. All of these disparate elements are being reviewed (in a haphazard sequence and piecemeal I might add) by a local agent of the police who has been asked to decide on Marsch’s ultimate fate. The overarching fear and paranoia endemic to a police state play a large role in this section as do, once again, the issues of identity and memory. The ennui and total disinterest of the police agent as he reviews the sad facts of the case of Dr. Marsch brings into sharp focus the horror and paranoia that underlies this tale. Our confusion (or mine anyway) is only exacerbated when these ‘facts’ as reported by Marsch become less and less reliable as he obviously becomes more and more unhinged by the events that overtake him. Or does he? Perhaps something mysterious really did happen during his journey to ‘the back of beyond’ on St. Anne in which he had only one local guide (who claimed to be half-Abo) as a companion. What mystery, if any, did he discover out there and what happened to him as a result? I’ll leave it to you to discover this.

Did I mention that legends state the Abos were shapeshifters? And that there are theories not only that they still exist, but may even have subsumed the human population so effectively that they have in essence become the human population? Well, let’s just add that to the pile of mysteries Wolfe brings to his set of tales. This is definitely a ‘Wolfean’ story: many, if not all, of Wolfe’s primary hobby-horses are in evidence, from a fascination with memory and identity, to unreliable narrators and key pieces of the puzzle never being revealed (or only revealed after the fact and behind a curtain as it were). If that’s your bag you’ll like this one and it will definitely bear re-reading and give you plenty of food for thought…I’m still left with an empty feeling inside though. As with nearly every adventure I take with Mr. Wolfe I just wish I was better equipped to parse his lingo, to see between the cracks in that way he so obviously wants me to. Sometimes I think I succeed, if only in small way, but I still end up coming away thinking: ‘that would have been an awesome story if it just came together and maybe made a bit more sense!’
Profile Image for Markus.
470 reviews1,517 followers
April 27, 2019
It's Gene Wolfe, what else is there to say, really?

An intriguing collection of science fiction short stories all with a common theme, filled with intricate details and an underlying exploration of themes that you have to read between the lines to even get a glimpse of.

Sometimes reading Wolfe is an exciting intellectual task, but it is of course not the same as reading a good novel. I applaud the man for having found an interesting way of providing readers with questions to think about, but if I want exceptionally good literature I'll go back to Tolstoy.

That all being said, I may want to re-read this at some point in the distant future, along with the Book of the New Sun.
Profile Image for Marc Aramini.
Author 5 books73 followers
April 9, 2013
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 that he is a genius and clearly sees the mystery of everyday life - that the power he believes in which could change everything in fact never acts directly, working unseen if at all and allowing freedom.

Wolfe's contextual symbols ALWAYS point somewhere, you just have to be willing to see the deeper story. In this text, two engineering terms are vital to "solving" the mystery - the relaxation the pale and pasty Dr. Marsch brings up when talking to number 5 and the idea of V.R.T. - variance reduction techniques, in which a SERIES of approximations reduces variance and "solves" a problem.



Contextual words are imbued with meaning - these symbols are sometimes cultural like the names of St. Anne or St. Croix (Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary, the immaculate conception, and cross, the death of that fully human/fully divine individual parthenogenetically produced), and sometimes only make sense in context, like the street name Rud d'asticot - street of larvae/maggots, or offhand comments like the aboriginals mating with trees and having a dendritic or predendritic society, or little details like Cedar Branches Waving's mother burying her feet in nutrient rich sand after giving birth, or Sandwalker's feet always dropping down from a higher place to a lower (whose feet get swept out from under him at the end of the second novella?) Even names like Eastwind have significance, or the fact that when there is one shadowchild it is named Wolf, as our narrator from the first novella is named Wolfe.

Read Wolfe several times and ponder the mystery of the life cycles he has wrought: Many Pink Butterflies, taken literally, implies that a whole lot of larval stages have transformed into something pink. But remember that there are two species, one associated with trees and the other with chewing leaves with pink eggs, spitting out white wives, and that a mite proficient with string is often caught on the wind. Eastwind has no testicles, and an invading parasite can only reproduce through infecting its host and stealing its reproductive mechanism. Now read the ending again, with a tree with its feet planted firmly in the river reaching out to save VRT, and our little cat biting Marsch, and you will realize that it is not, as is commonly said, Victor Trenchard who has replaced Marsch, but the bite of the cat and its little parasites, that it is Eastwind that has survived metaphorically while Sandwalker with his normal reproductive tract is drowned in the river.

Gene Wolfe is the greatest author who ever lived, and we are so lucky to have his unique and individual voice in literature. Though many will not get him on the first, second, or even third read, there is nothing like the eureka moment in Wolfe from a close reading and successful conclusion. He is even more brilliant than his reputation indicates.
Profile Image for Stuart.
708 reviews262 followers
September 18, 2016
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 earth masterpiece, which has a 1-volume coda called The Urth of the New Sun, along with two companion series, THE BOOK OF THE LONG SUN and THE BOOK OF THE SHORT SUN. Collectively they are known as THE SOLAR CYCLE, and these books tend to split readers into two camps: either dedicated Wolfe fans who find his works richer, deeper, and more subtle than anything else in the SF canon, or those who just don’t get it. I’m a great admirer of THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN, which I have read twice through for the epic story and exquisite writing, but couldn’t even finish THE BOOK OF THE LONG SUN, which bored me into submission. But like a dedicated alpinist, I plan to try the ascent once again when the right conditions prevail, hoping to conquer the Everest of the genre someday.

The Fifth Head of Cerberus (1972) is Wolfe’s first book of substance (his first, Operation Ares in 1970, was not particularly good according to the author himself). It began as a novella, but he was asked to expand it to book length by adding two more linked novellas. So the book consists of three stories, each very different but tied together beneath the surface in tricky and oblique ways, a form of ‘literary kabuki,’ as Wolfe loves to create puzzles and drop little hints and revelations throughout his stories. Someone wisely observed that your understanding of a Gene Wolfe book only begins when you’ve read the last page. Once you get to the end, you feel compelled to go back to the beginning and search out all those hints that were seemingly irrelevant, and put together the hidden tapestry he has been carefully weaving. So if you are a fan of propulsive, easily-accessible stories with likeable characters and straightforward plots, this is the wrong book for you!

I’ll give a brief synopsis of the three novellas, but I won’t provide any spoilers for two simple reasons: 1) it would ruin your enjoyment, and 2) I’m not sure that I properly understood the underlying connections of the stories anyway. So I’ll just lay out the basic details, and if you are intrigued, then pick up the book and have a go at it yourself.

The Fifth Head of Cerberus

We are introduced to the twin worlds of Saint Croix and Saint Anne, which were originally colonized by French settlers but later were overtaken by later waves of colonists from Earth. There are stories that Saint Anne had an original race of aboriginals that were wiped out by the French colonists, but details are strangely vague. In fact, some claim that the initial race were shapeshifters, suggesting they may still remain, hidden in plain sight.

Our protagonist is a boy growing up in a mysterious villa with his brother David, raised under the watchful tutelage of Mr. Million, apparently a robot guardian who educates them. The boy and his brother initially are not cognizant of their father’s business, a high-end brothel, knowing only that there is a steady stream of wealthy visitors that come to their property to be entertained by a stable of attractive women. Their father is a distant and somewhat menacing presence who shows little interest in them until one day he invites them to his laboratory. He begins to give them a series of tests, more like experiments, which involve drugs, psychological tests, and leave them both drained and uncertain of their memories afterward. This continues for some time.

The boys eventually encounter a young girl who becomes their companion, get into some petty criminal activities together, and finally the boy is taken further into his father’s confidences. The details that are revealed cast the entire story into a different light, and the story takes a stranger turn as a mysterious anthropologist from Earth named John V. Marsh shows up, asking to speak with the author of the Veil Hypothesis, which suggests that the native aboriginals were never wiped out, but instead…

“A Story,” by John V. Marsch

This story is completely different in tone, more like a dreamquest of the aborigines on Saint Anne. It is told by John Sandwalker, who is seeking his twin separated at birth, John Eastwind. It is definitely one of the strangest and most hypnotic stories I have read, with a completely alien mindset and extremely unreliable narrator and details. Sandwalker encounters a woman and child at an oasis, then runs into the Shadow Children, creatures that may or may not be human, and may not even be corporeal at all times, since they seem to drift in and out of the real and dream worlds. The Shadow Children share their songs and food with Sandwalker, but are then captured along with him by the marshmen, who plan to sacrifice them to the river in order to carry their message to the stars. Are the Shadow Children the original inhabitants of Saint Anne, before human colonists arrived? Who, then, are the marshmen? Have they switched places, as was hinted at in Veil’s Hypothesis? The questions, conundrums, and mysteries pile up in this story, and Wolfe is not about to give any easy answers as he lets the reader fight to piece together the tidbits he scatters at whim. If this is his idea of a pleasurable reading experience, I found it a bit cruel and perverse, but apparently Wolfe fans can’t get enough of this.


In the final story, Wolfe literally revels in misdirection, layers of narrative, the complete unreliability of the narrator’s memories, and the fragmentary nature of the source materials themselves. Although we are given more and more tantalizing clues as to the nature of the aborigines, what happened to the original French settlers, and what happened to the narrator of the first story, his father, and the anthropologist John V. Marsh, things get very tangled indeed.

Here were are presented with the scattered journal entries of John V. Marsh, who has been incarcerated by the authorities of Saint Croix under suspicion of being a secret agent and assassin sent from Saint Anne. His jailers do not believe his claims that he really is an anthropologist sent from Earth to learn about the fate of the aboriginals. We learn that he has spent several years on Saint Anne, trying to gather information on the aborigines, who supposedly still live in “the back of beyond,” essentially the outback. He also hears them referred to as The Free Folk of the hills, separate from the cannibal people of the marshmeres. He hires an old derelict named Trenchard who claims to be an aborigine himself, and his son V.R.T. as a half-aborigine, as guides to take him to the outback in the hopes of tracking down any surviving natives.

However, the framing narrative is of a mid-level inspector who is looking through the scattered documents pertaining to the prisoner Marsh, who must decide how to prosecute him. There is much doubt cast on his ‘cover’ story, although at no point does Marsh admit to being anything other than the anthropologist from Earth he claims to be, despite long bouts of interrogations, solitary confinement, and deprivation. His only means to communicate with other prisoners is through tapping on the walls in a code the prisoners have devised.

The journey Marsh describes in his journal entries (his jailers have provided him with pen, paper, and candle in the hopes he will reveal important information) is a strange one, somewhat reminiscent of the dreamquest of the second story, but the trip is mostly fruitless except for strange encounters with ghoul-bears and other predators, and growing suspicions by Marsh about the boy V.R.T. Eventually the tone of Marsh’s entries changes in a very subtle fashion, casting further doubts about his identity, but again nothing is spelled out. Oh, you are a cruel writer indeed, Mr. Wolfe! And yet the writing was skillful enough to keep me going, even with the growing suspicion that I would reach the end without any final answers. As it turns out, the story is so ambiguous that I don’t even know if it delivered any final clues that were just too subtle for me to grasp, or if he left it open to multiple interpretations, which I suspect is the case. In any case, don’t expect any spoon-feeding here.

The Fifth Head of Cerberus is not an easy read, and may not even provide the expected payoff for the hard work, but it remains a brilliant example of Wolfe’s impressive writing abilities, almost too clever for his own good. If you are a serious SF fan who likes challenging works, look no further.
Profile Image for Brad.
Author 2 books1,684 followers
March 24, 2012
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 embodied in brilliant fiction...
and I think, "Yep, but meh." And then I read what China Miéville says about the book,
[[author:Gene Wolfe]'s] tragico-Catholic perspective leads to a deeply unglamorized and unsanitized awareness of social reality. This book is a very sad and extremely dense, complex meditation on colonialism, identity and oppression.
and I think, "Mmmhmm, but still..." And I enjoy the three novella = novel structure, but the manufactured obscurity makes me cold. And I appreciate the struggles of the three protagonists, but I only ever flirt with investing myself in their conflicts. And I see Wolfe playing with the themes that people venerate this work for, but I can't quite put my finger on anything that I can personally take away.

So I walk away from the book unmoved and uninspired, yet I see its quality. I really do. So please don't avoid this book because of me. I probably missed something crucial. The fault for my lack of excitement is likely my own -- or my lack of sleep's. Whichever it is, though, I will never know. Sorry, Mr. Wolfe. I'll try to do better next time I read one of your books.
Profile Image for L.S. Popovich.
Author 2 books314 followers
December 29, 2019
I don't feel qualified to give a comprehensive review of this book. It is only the 2nd book of Gene Wolfe's I've read, and the first I've come close to understanding. I think this must be a better book to begin with though, than his Book of the New Sun series. I am a big fan of Jack Vance's Dying Earth series and Wolfe's is similar in setting but not in tone. You get a lot of humor in Vance, and almost no humor in Wolfe - so far. Or at least the humor partakes of the same dense opacities as the rest of the book's literary ingredients. It is hard to tell what is meant as truth or misconception, and many readers have found this to be part of the fun.

Wolfe ties together many deep themes, wild characters, and disarming alien descriptions alongside droll pseudo-reminiscences. He touches on Imperialism, genetic modification, interplanetary travel, sibling relationships, folklore, shapeshifting creatures, ghosts and many more intriguing elements, but only through hints and by undermining your expectations. The plot is only discoverable beneath a riptide of otherworldly richness, of bizarre, hallucinogenic revelations, and if swallowed half-digested and barely understood, it can still be incredibly interesting.

When the story flips to the perspective of the aborigines, I was treated to an intense array of breathtaking surprises. The reader is left questioning who is the actual protagonist of this story, and who's version of reality can be believed.

The two nearby planets the author describes each have their own philosophy, anthropology, and history, and in the famous Wolfian fashion, none of it is readily discernible, except through subtle insinuations. This puzzle-narrative technique ceaselessly sabotages the reader's attempts at interpretation. Like the characters themselves, the reader is forced to undergo an investigation of the facts provided, and is left to draw their own conclusions.

The author might have split up the book into 3 separate novellas, but that would not have aided much in how approachable they are. Taken together they enlarge upon their interior modus operandi in unique ways. This extraordinary interaction within the texts may never have been incorporated into literature before or since. I will have to examine his New Sun series at length to see if it lives up to his layered accomplishment with "Cerberus."

The intelligence of the structure, the imaginative setting, and the elegant descriptions are enough to impress any fan of science fiction. If you do not mind Wolfe's trickery, I think that there is a great deal of enjoyment to be gained from this book. Keep in mind this was written very early in his career, and he had only begun to experiment...
Profile Image for Lyn.
1,851 reviews16.4k followers
December 6, 2022
I’m a big fan of audiobooks, I usually have one going all the time. Actually, I frequently have a real book, an audiobook and a Kindle book going at once.

Anyway, as a fan of Gene Wolfe, I have learned that the best way to read and enjoy one of his excellent novels is not by listening to a narrator, but rather by reading slowly and carefully to not miss any detail of Wolfe’s meticulous and exhaustive world building. Like Frank Herbert, any sentence or even each word in the text may be fecund with multiple meanings and hidden implications.

Wolfe’s 1972 novel, written when the author was 41, is a composite of three interrelated stories. A casual reader (not sure how that’s possible) may read this as a collection of three stories; however, a Wolfe fan will be ready for the old grandmaster and will immediately pick up on easter eggs and foreshadowing.

The first story describes a far distant world, colonized by the French, and with a strange history of aboriginal natives who may be compatible genetically with the human settlers. The indigenous peoples may also be shapeshifters so there are insinuations that they may have infiltrated, to varying degrees, the colonizers.

The second is a dream sequence reminiscent of Australian dream time walkabouts. We are led to believe that this may be a story about and from the aborigines.

The third is more closely related to the first and concerns a minor character from the first who may have come from Earth and who is doing anthropological studies of the early settlors and their experiences with the natives. The mystery is further heightened by a bizarre civil dystopian bureaucracy and legal system.

As with most of Wolfe’s writing, and like Faulkner, the reader must be tuned in to discover mysteries, many that will not be solved and we must, flashlight in hand, walk through the dark rooms of the author’s imagination, picking up what we can as our guide walks quickly and declines to step down his intellect for our ease of reading.

Called by some a masterpiece, this lacks the subtle epic quality of his Book of the New Sun works, but this more accessible work (relatively speaking) is a challenge. But for those up the challenge, there is a wealth of narrative quality and Wolfe’s writing is inspired.

Profile Image for Yórgos St..
93 reviews36 followers
April 20, 2020
The Fifth Head of Cerberus is a work of genius. A book full of allusions and ambiguities, a literary puzzle that the reader must put together.
It contains three novellas linked by the two major themes of the book which are identity and colonialism. The theme of identity it's something that has puzzled Wolfe in all of his books. From Severian in the Book of the New Sun, the inhumi (and their secret which explains a lot once you crack it) in the Book of the Short Sun to E.A. Smithe in A Borrowed Man. It seems to me that the majority of Wolfe's heroes are trying to find who they really are. Luckily most of the times I think that they succeed. In the Fifth Head of Cerberus Wolfe also touches other themes and there is plenty commentary regarding the state, society and authoritarian regimes. Themes concerning childhood are also present in the first story but not in the nostalgic manner of Ray Bradbury for example. It's a really harsh and sad story.
Wolfe's prose is sometines difficult, technically structured with lengthy Proustian paragraphs, demanding the reader's full attention. The book is really a puzzle and a very difficult one to solve. There was a time that I thought that it was just not possible but now, after my third reread, I have one or two theories that explain the book.

Gene Wolfe, who died last year, was one of the greatest writers ever lived. His masterwork, The Book of the New Sun, is a work unique to literature and it deserves to be side by side with other masterworks such as Joyce's Ulysses or Melville's Moby Dick.
Gene Wolfe's work has been ignored by the mature readers and the acadamia as purely science fiction/fantasy, thus not important or dismissed by the genre readers as difficult and inaccessible. The truth is that Gene Wolfe wrote high quality literature and like all good quality literature it demands reader's effort in order to be fully understood.
Gene Wolfe deserves to be among the masters of the art.
2 reviews12 followers
January 27, 2011
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: read some of his work and see. "The Fifth Head of Cerberus" is perhaps the best place to start, not because it is his easiest work (it is not), but because is both fairly compact and an example of Wolfe at his best. The commitment is smaller than if you launch in to the Latro books, or "The Book of the New Sun", but the joy to be had on reading is no smaller. You will know soon enough if Wolfe is, for you, all that his admirers say he is. I say "for you" because taste in literature is inevitably personal, and perhaps you will find that Wolfe is not what you are seeking. Perhaps, however, you will find that he is, and if so, you have a wonderful treat awaiting you.

I suggest that you not read any review of this book that describes the plot. In fact, I suggest that, if you choose to buy the book, you avoid reading overly much about it, looking at the cover image, or reading the back cover copy. None of them will improve your experience of the text. No summary will do you any good, anyway. I could explain the plot of in a couple of moments, and it would in no way convey the pleasure that reading it will bring to you. In fact, knowing anything about the plot at all will explain nothing about why you want to read it, and might, in fact give one precisely the wrong impression about why one would want to read it.

Wolfe is said to have claimed "my definition of good literature is that which can be read by an educated reader, and reread with increased pleasure." "The Fifth Head of Cerberus" is, by that standard, some of the very best literature there is. Immediately after I first read the book, I was driven to read it again. I have since re-read it perhaps five or six times over the course of many years, and each time I find both that understand the book better, and that, like a bottle of incredible wine, aging has only improved the content.

I would normally be reluctant to give five stars to any work, but not in this case. Can this book really compete with, say, "Moby Dick", or "Hamlet", or "Lolita", or "Ulysses" in the canon of great literature? I claim yes, it does. See for yourself.

I will close with a few remarks to serve someone newly encountering Wolfe's work. He is a master craftsman, and makes few if any mistakes in shaping the intricate puzzle boxes he hands to his readers. Every sentence in a book has been placed there for a reason. No detail of character, setting or action is described thoughtlessly, and no detail will be described to you twice. Wolfe does not telegraph his motives or paint a summary on a billboard -- he expects a thoughtful reader. That said, I discourage you from treating his works as mystery stories or as a game to be solved. They are not. You should not be attempting to commit each line to memory, and should not try to drain every last bit of meaning from them on first reading. You will not succeed, and it will serve no purpose. Instead, dive in, enjoy the elegant prose, hang on to the galloping story as it carries you forward, and marvel at the form of the whole as you reach the end. When you inevitably wonder about something you may have missed, worry not -- you can and will enjoy the work even more on re-reading.
Profile Image for Baba.
3,527 reviews788 followers
May 2, 2020
SF Masterworks reprint (2010- series) #10: A twin planet reality first settled by the French before wider colonisation. With a mix of new tech and steampunk/Victorian era ideas from space travel down to having bordellos and slave markets! So Wolfe's setting alone got me hooked even without the stories.

Then the book itself has three novellas, all with unreliable narrators! The first is the coming of age story with a difference for a motherless 11 year old living in a brothel run by his scientist father! The second story tells of the the first landing of Earthmen, from the viewpoint of the native races, retold by someone who couldn't possible know so much detail. The final story has a man in authority read through communications and listen to interviews connected to an incarcerated prisoner. All three stories are strongly, seamlessly linked.

So why just Three Stars? The stories although well crafted, with the interesting constructed reality, gets a bit confusing at times with the multiple unreliable narrations throughout. I know this was written in the 1970s but the book reeks of gender idiocy with Wolf describing the look of EVERY female character, like she's in a beauty contest, no matter the narrator. The book also feels incomplete, it's well thought out to a degree, but left far more questions unanswered than answered. Still a recommended read for the storytelling techniques and the constructed reality. 7.5 out of 12.
Profile Image for Juho Pohjalainen.
Author 5 books248 followers
May 8, 2020
It's honestly difficult to say what Gene Wolfe is doing to my poor brain. Is he wrenching open new lines and new dimensions, avenues of thought and possibility hitherto unknown to me? Or is he just chipping me down like a pick-axe on a mountain, far too much for me to safely handle - or at least to comprehend - so that all I get is a headache and a feeling of inadequacy? Each of his books has felt all the worse in this case: perhaps it was because I've been reading them in the right order, managing to pick the more easily-comprehend books the first... or perhaps it's just another piece of evidence that he's tying my brain into an ever tighter knot.

This book seems to concern itself with three largely separate narratives, each possibly maybe connected in ways that I can't quite untangle but that I can tell are there. The stories jump from one place to another a lot, or if not that, then end up telling a seeming hallucination where the line between dream and reality grows thin indeed. And of course the narrator is never to be trusted.

But I do know for certain - one thing he can never hide from me - that Gene Wolfe's prose is simply a joy to read. It makes me want to pick up these books, however little I would otherwise understand of them. It makes me feel like re-reading them one day, as well... which is good, because I really have to re-read them to understand them all. Possibly three or four times.
Profile Image for Kate Sherrod.
Author 5 books78 followers
November 10, 2017
update: reread in 2017 and this time I'm going right back to the beginning again for another, immediate reread. I'll probably babble about it on my blog again soon, too. Below is my original review from 2012.


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 other St. Croix, the three novellas comprising the book are haunted by a terrible consequence of that colonization, one that seems to be typical of humans among the stars in this universe -- and in our own.

For St. Croix, at least, was not uninhabited when we got there. But the aboroginals -- abos for short -- didn't survive our coming for long. And now theories abound as to how and why that is so -- or if, indeed, it is. Some St. Annes, at least, are obsessed with a theory that the abos had once been human, descended from an earlier wave of human expansion, which would mean that they had killed off their own kind. No one seems sure if that makes it better or worse.

Another theory is that the abos possessed the power to mimic humans so successfully that they then lost their power of perfect mimicry, lost it because the humans they mimic don't possess it, and either lived among the humans in forgetful secrecy as St. Anne/St. Croix society developed or, in one radical interpretation, actually killed off and replaced the human colonists and live on now believing they are the colonists themselves. How would they know?

It's to haunting ideas like these that Wolfe scholars like Robert "Solar Labyrinth" Borski point when they start talking about the predicament of Urth in Severian's day as a punishment inflicted on humanity by alien intelligences of the kind of awesome power we only get glimpses of until we encounter them full bore in Urth of the New Sun. I'm trying not to get spoilery here, but if the kind of unwitting bad behavior that founded is at all typical of how humans from Urth behave among the stars, no wonder the megatherians are fighting behind to keep Severian and other candidates from fulfilling their potential.

Even without the game of drawing connections to Wolfe's later work (The Fifth Head of Cerberus is only the second book Wolfe published; the dude was just warming up, here)**, these three novellas are satisfying reads in their own right, though when you're done with them you'll have spent so much of your brainspace on puzzling out all the questions of identity, in particular, that they pose, that you might doubt your own.

The titular novella concerns a boy growing up in a high end brothel, whose father specializes in customizing his employees in ways the airbrush artists at fashion magazines could only dream of, but using a similar aesthetic, and who is himself the product of generations of experimentation not unlike what he himself practices in his lab as he grows up. The second, "A Story by John V. Marsch"*** is told from the point of view of a minor character in "The Fifth Head of Cerberus", an anthropologist who is either making up or participating in a story of the lost abo culture and its first terrible contact with humanity. The third, "V.R.T." riffs on themes in the first two, calls into question all the assumptions the reader may have been making on the first read of those two, and sends her back to read them again to see whether she was wrong, right, confused or had been hit on the head by something and just dreamed them.

Yeah, it's like that. Because it's, you know, Gene Wolfe.

*Which itself seems an awful lot like the double-planet system to which the Whorl brings its colonists at the end of Book of the Long Sun, one world being blue and one green. But Gene Wolfe, when pressed "doesn't know" why this motif of Urth/Lune, St. Croix/St. Anne, Blue/Green recurs.

**But this is an irresistible game. For instance, we know that some of the inhabitants of Urth in Severian's time are returnees from the stars, returnees who came back weirdly changed and perhaps not altogether human (kind of like, say, the Ascians of whom it is impossible not to think when the protagonist of the middle story sees Shadow Children riding men like ponies) and brought back various odd creatures, and might even have terraformed the moon to make it into Green Lune out of homesickness for having a sister planet in their night sky.

***Prefiguring his strange and weirdly entertaining Pandora by Holly Hollander, Wolfe seems to like to play with the concept of authorship in titles more than any other writer ever.
Profile Image for Aerin.
149 reviews529 followers
June 16, 2020
Note: Though I'm not spoiler-cutting this review, proceed with caution, especially if you're thinking about reading this book! The less you know about a Wolfe story when you begin, the more power it has to totally blow your mind, dude.

Ste. Anne and Ste. Croix. Twin planets orbiting a distant sun. Colonized by humans long ago, they are now populated by mysterious creatures that may or may not be human. Oh, they look like us and act like us and in every measurable way are clearly the descendants of those first settlers.


What happened to the mysterious aborigines of Ste. Anne? The intelligent native inhabitants were everywhere when humans first landed, according to dozens of reports. But after just a few hundred years, all trace of them has vanished. There are those who think they never existed at all. And there are those who have a different theory.

Some of the original reports claimed that the aborigines were shapeshifters. That they could mimic any form - animal, plant, or otherwise - so perfectly as to be completely undetectable. What if they started mimicking humans? What if they killed all the settlers and took their place? Are all the human colonists on Ste. Anne and Ste. Croix really descended from aliens? If the aborigines had the ability to mimic humans perfectly, and if they lost the power to change shape over the generations, how could the colonists ever know who and what they really are?

This is just one of the ways this book fucks with the concept of identity. Consisting of three interconnected novellas, each one delivers a separate but thematically-related mindfuck. And each one is a mini-masterpiece, a perfect example of everything science fiction should be but rarely is: smart, complex, literary, unique, unforgettable.

In part I, "The Fifth Head of Cerberus", we read the memoirs of a man known to us only as Number Five, who grew up on Ste. Croix. At first, it's a typical account of childhood, with some standard science fiction embellishments - a robot teacher, a disabled aunt who floats above the ground on an antigrav prosthesis. But things soon become very... strange, and as you read between the lines you start to get a picture of the bizarre freakshow that is this man's life. This story remains one of my all-time favorite pieces of fiction - it sucks you in and each page reveals something fascinating and horrifying.

Part II, " 'A Story,' by John V. Marsch", is the strangest of the three. Marsch is a character we first met in part I, an anthropologist from earth who has spent years on Ste. Anne researching the aborigines. This story is his reconstruction of aboriginal life, either just before or several centuries after first contact with humans - depending on which characters you believe. It's a mythic, hallucinatory tale whose clues to the overall mystery are illusory - it is, after all, the creation of a character who doesn't know much more about the truth than we do... unless, of course, he does, which is where part III comes in.

"V.R.T." is possibly the biggest mindfuck of them all. Marsch is back on Ste. Croix, and imprisoned for the murder of a character from part I (wrongfully, as it happens, but the fascist government doesn't care much about that). The story is largely told through snippets of diaries, notes and interviews from Marsch's research on Ste. Anne, where he traveled with a young guide (initials V.R.T.) into the wilderness looking for evidence of aboriginal civilization. In the end, only Marsch returns, the guide having died. Or is it Marsch that returns? V.R.T. may have been an aborigine, and he may have taken Marsch's place. The survivor himself doesn't know - is he V.R.T., mimicking Marsch so perfectly that he has no memory of the transition? Or is he Marsch, and mad?

At what point is a perfect imitation equivalent to the original anyway? At what point does the distinction between real and fake cease to have any meaning? Whether it's a clone trying to escape the fate of his previous iterations, or an entire society whose provenance may not be their own, or one man who can't tell if he's genuine or a perfect copy, on these twin planets nobody can be sure they are who they think they are.

Which makes me wonder - can we?



(Original review date: 12 June 2011)
Profile Image for Nicky.
4,138 reviews1,007 followers
February 16, 2012
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 followed every word, but I didn't -- but I liked it a lot anyway, and I know I'm going to be thinking about it for quite a while. It's all about issues of identity, along with colonial issues, which I find interesting, and it's fantastically written: the plot may be puzzling, but the sentences never are.

The structure of the book is interesting: three novellas which share themes and come together into a whole. It's a bit difficult to see how they connect at first, other than shared worlds, but don't let that deter you. Normally I'd find it a turn-off, but it's worth just letting the narrative carry you along.

I don't know if I'm going to read more of Gene Wolfe's work, oddly enough. I liked this very much, and may even reread it, but it wasn't easy. I find myself gravitating to easy reads, lately -- I spend so much time wrestling with Middle English that when I get to my relaxing time, it's hard to settle down with something as nuanced and complex as The Fifth Head of Cerberus.
Profile Image for Love of Hopeless Causes.
721 reviews44 followers
August 8, 2017
More like a channelled work than a structured effort, the sort of sophistry produced after poor choices in moustachery followed by ingesting sour crab cakes and having your nap interrupted by the inevitable gas. I believe the Cantonese character expresses it best as, "little crab cake gas dreams."
I once believed I possessed complex tastes in stories. After a few years on Goodreads, I've realized I have very simple tastes that are rarely satisfied. Wanted: like able main character who goes on a compressed adventure that has some meaning or bearing on the world at large. Not wanted: academies of snotty elitist children with unforeseen powers.
What is the main character's goal? After a half hours listen, why should I care about this generic child?
Not playing fair is not novelty, it's poor writing. Plot need not be a riddle to be solved, this is why the old Sci-Fi shorts feel like elaborate in-jokes with weak punchlines. They would better if it didn't take British writers half an hour to strap on the tea cozy, by then the tea is already cold. Your wasabi lacks character, Gene.
Profile Image for Ellen.
374 reviews4 followers
April 3, 2019
Intriguing set of 3 stories that demands a 2nd reading! While I missed the dry wit of some of his other work I was very challenged to read into each story my own hypothesis of the purpose of the multi generational cloning, versus the fate of human kind with the abos slow absorption of the newcomers as somewhat illustrated in the last story. Will everyone end up with green eyes and a somewhat triangular face?

Also, an interview with the author:
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for David M.
442 reviews390 followers
May 15, 2020
5/15/20 - second reading; I would only say that I still can't seem to get much out of the middle section. Otherwise, definitely a great book.

Oedipal trauma, unspeakable origins, postcolonial guilt and species shame refracted through multiple narrators, none of them entirely sane or reliable... god damn, this is a great book. The Sound and the Fury of science fiction.

For all the praise heaped on the Book on the New Sun, much of it deserved, doesn't it get a bit turgid in places? isn't the pacing downright intolerable at times? Not so here. Nothing is wasted. Maximum intensity with each sentence.
Profile Image for Amy.
653 reviews132 followers
March 20, 2022
I've wanted to read this for ages, and now that I have, I don't know exactly what I've read. The book takes place in the far future on a planet that humans have colonized. The natives seem to have gone extinct, but there are rumors that they're still alive on the planet somewhere. What happened to the natives is at the heart of the mystery of the book. However, the book doesn't end with a definitive answer, just more questions. Part 2 of the book felt like a confusing dream within a dream where each paragraph needed multiple readings and still yielded murky results. A lack of resolution, plus 1/3 of the book being nearly unintelligible just didn't make me a fan. On the other hand, my husband read this at the same time and thought it was the best thing he'd read all year. We both had different interpretations of the nature of the clones, the floating aunt, the Shadow Children, and the starwalkers. I like mysteries, but I don't care that they persist when I'm done with the book. It's not like there was ever a sequel to explain it. I'm not sure I would read it anyway. For me, this was a dud, but plenty have loved it. It's just not my cup of tea.
Profile Image for Andreas.
482 reviews128 followers
June 7, 2015
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 way to freedom. He was brought up in a luxurious brothel, which financed his father’s genetical experiments on him and his brother David. He meets anthropologist Dr. Marsch and gets to know that he is a descendant of a “family” of clones. Sick of the terrible experiments, he decides to kill his father, gets caught, is imprisoned. Free again, he returns to his old home, only to repeat his father’s history, because he cannot change.

‘A Story’ by John V. Marsch

The second novella shifts planet and time to the sister planet Sainte Anne and the ancient past. It tells of the aborigines Sandwalker who searches his kidnapped brother Eastwind. He meets humans of another race, the mythical “Shadow Children”, who influence a starship to land. The brothers’ identities merge and one meets the arriving French people who will colonize the planet. By the time of Number Five several centuries later it’s even argued that the abos have been entirely wiped out.

V. R. T.

The last novella is about the H. R. Haggard “She” like diary of anthropologist Dr. Marsch, read by an officer on Sainte Croix. Marsch was mistakenly arrested for murder in the Fifth Head of Cerberus. The diary tells of Marsch’s adventures on Sainte Croix where he wanted to study the aborigines. At some point it becomes clear, that Marsch is really replaced by a shape-changing aborigine.


This is a brilliantly narrated Gothic Mystery, a pivotal story in Gene Wolfe’s writing career and one of the high points of 1970s Science Fiction.

“When I was a boy my brother David and I had to go to bed early whether we were tired or not.”

This first sentence echoes Proust and is the beginning of a masterpiece in prose, world-building, and engaging riddles. The setting of this coming-of-age novella is a future turned to past: slavery friendly Fin de Siècle, post-colonial French town called Port-Mimizon on planet Sainte Croix. The narrator’s home remembers me a bit of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast with its grotesqueness.

You can read the novella as a straight-forward story, but revisiting it leads to the included riddles. Just to name a few: Number Five’s real name, his relation to his girl-friend Phaedria, the nature of the five heads of Cerberus. I won’t point out the solutions here, but if you’re curious, there is a great Wiki resolving all those riddles.

The novella is one of the SF genre’s early discussions of cloning, evolution theory, and human identity: Identity is not only a matter of genes and environment, but also of the soul. By duplicating his father’s life, he denies his individuality.

Besides of the intellectually interesting details, the novella is exciting, emotional, wonderfully Kafkaesque, and full of great ideas. But it is also ambiguous and leaves some elements unresolved – so, if you’re a friend of clear words and fixed endings, then Wolfe might not be your preferred author.
Profile Image for Ross Lockhart.
Author 26 books198 followers
June 27, 2007
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 post-colonialist literature I’ve read, commenting on racial identity, passing, occupation, and cross-cultural hybridization with eloquence and mystery. Truly amazing stuff. Thanks, Jay!
Profile Image for Jack Caulfield.
186 reviews13 followers
May 6, 2019
Usually in any novel that hinges upon a central mystery, that mystery is a sort of game played in the full knowledge that you're going to win, a series of questions that you know you'll be given the answers to in good time. That is, you feel like you're puzzling something out, but short of solving the mystery yourself before the big reveal, you can't really be said to have done any intellectual work.

Gene Wolfe approaches mysteries differently. This is honestly one of the most challenging novels I've read, not challenging in the manner of Ulysses (though Wolfe's beautiful, carefully crafted prose undoubtedly bears the mark of the modernist tradition), but challenging in the sense that you are given all the subtle hints you need to solve the mystery, with none of the neat exposition at the end to confirm or dispel your suspicions.

And, of course, the novel does not just exist for the sake of this mystery. This is a book written with very serious ideas about identity, heritage, colonialism, childhood, maturity and memory in mind. Wolfe's genius is his ability not only to fit all this into a relatively short novel (really three superficially disparate novellas), but to write with such consistent beauty and power in the process.

It's also great sci-fi.
Profile Image for Pavle.
409 reviews142 followers
September 25, 2019
Tri povezane novele koje zapravo manjeviše čine jednu celinu, te se ovo komotno može tretirati kao roman. Prvi moj susret s Vulfom tekao je ovako.

1. (novela) – „ma ha-ha, pa ovo uopšte nije teško“
2. (novela) – ja na kolenima, uplakan
3. (novela) – „zašto“

Vulf izgleda voli slagalice, voli da spaja delove različitih slika i pokuša da od njih napravi nešto novo i drugačije. Priča o identitetu, kolektivnom i ličnom, samospoznaji i tzv „istini“, smeštena u vrlo knjiški saj faj topos. Daleko je ovo od lošeg, šta više, nekom dostojnijem verovatno bi bilo fenomenalno i bajno, ali mene je druga novela toliko dotukla konfuznošću da iskreno na trenutke nisam bio toliko siguran šta čitam i ko je uopšte ovaj, a ko onaj. Treća, iako takodje levitira na ivici nepouzdanog naratora, naprotiv, daleko je razumnija i interesantnija, dok druga, iako se na meta nivou celokupne narative savršeno uklapa u roman, prosto ubija u pojam svaku želju za sledećom stranicom.

Profile Image for Tijana.
732 reviews190 followers
August 21, 2018
Peta glava Kerbera je... hm... roman od tri naučnofantastične novele koje mogu da se čitaju i zasebno (ne preporučujem jer je onda frustracija još veća), i koji po autorovom proverenom običaju otvara više pitanja nego što daje odgovora. Ali istovremeno pruža i istančane portrete nekoliko odreda neprijatnih ljudi i izuzetno bogatu sliku jednog mogućeg sveta i razvoja ljudskog roda i nabacuje neke probleme kolonijalizacije u svemiru i nepostojanosti ličnog i kolektivnog identiteta (to Vulf radi uvek, znam) i poigrava se mitologijom (rekla bih pre svega australijskom ali ko zna) i kloniranjem i ima neke insajderske šale (hvala K. S. Robinsonu što je objasnio bar jednu) i omaže Kafki (to samo slepac ne bi video) i Prustu (jedan konkretan trenutkić ali mnogo sam ponosna što sam ga uhvatila).
Profile Image for Jacob.
118 reviews23 followers
August 30, 2007
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 of nested frame tales (sometimes descending so deeply that your ability to maintain context is severely taxed), the many stories enter the novel like a thread unspooled in a labyrinth, and it's easy enough to find your way out. But The Fifth Head of Cerberus, though it only comprises three distinct stories, is a knot.

(Having said that, I'm not sure that I think that this book is as opaque as some of the other reviewers indicate; I do think that a second reading would clear up a few questions.)
Profile Image for J.M. Hushour.
Author 6 books195 followers
August 31, 2022
Five stars for the first of the three novellas collected here, 2 stars for the rest.
Wolfe is one of my all-time favorite sci-fi authors of one of my all-time favorite sci-fi readings, the 4-volume Book of the New Sun series. I love those books, and recommend them over pretty much anything else in the sci-fi/fantasyish genre.
These three novellas collected together into one novel precede that masterpiece and are of wackily varying quality. The titular first story is simply amazing, and in the vein of New Sun with its mild, archaic language and quiet horrors. The other two, expanding on the theme of the first (two morally questionable and Francophone human colonies may have exterminated their world's indigenous people, who were shape-shifters, or the aliens simply became the humans!) are poor, flaccid, and actually kind of boring. I can't account for it, maybe Wolfe can--it's definitely worth reading the first story which is the Wolfe you should love.
Profile Image for Miloș Dumbraci.
Author 20 books74 followers
February 20, 2018
I found the first story very good, but a little boring and not very credible in the mix of 19th century+future (in the New Sun series there are good reasons to make that believable, but here they are not). The second story is utterly uninteresting and unreadable; the third just very boring.
I love GW in his Sun series, but this book was a big let-down for me.
Profile Image for Daniel Polansky.
Author 27 books1,128 followers
May 2, 2019
A masterful suite of novellas about identity, 'humanness' and two planets in a distant solar system in some unknowable future. Each of the three somewhat interlinked stories are written in radically different styles, showcasing the extent of the author's genius. Each are strange and beautiful and frightening and sad. I've sad it before and I'll say it once more; Wolfe was one of the best writers of the 20th century. We lost a giant this month.
Profile Image for Simon.
558 reviews225 followers
January 28, 2012
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 a clever simulation?

The narrative is split into three interconnected novellas and set on a colony world with a dystopian society and a mysterious, vanished alien aborigine. An anthropologist from earth arrives to investigate the true nature of this nebulous alien race. Sounds fairly conventional SF faire but stylistically this is anything but conventional.

As Adam Roberts points out in his introduction, there are parallels between this and Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles but the comparison only goes so far, this is far more obscure. If you read this edition, I would strongly recommend reading the introduction after you have finished the book because it is spoiler laden beyond belief.

I generally like ambiguity and obliqueness in stories that leave you pondering it's implications afterwards but this is nearly too much for me. Perhaps Wolfe is just too clever for me? Or maybe I just need to read it a couple more times.
Profile Image for Derek.
1,228 reviews9 followers
March 6, 2016
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 by carelessness and circumstance--are reviewed by an unnamed officer in Sante Croix's police state government. Marsch's----situation, and the truth of his supposed revolutionary activities, are a minor footnote in someone else's career. This official, despite his perusal of available material, does not ferret out the truth from the clues. In fact, based on his careless, contemptuous handling of evidence, he is not interested in Marsch or the truth of his crime, only in determining the correct course of action based on political ramifications. Nobody cares who Marsch really is.
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