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The Fifth Head of Cerberus

3.98  ·  Rating details ·  5,885 ratings  ·  395 reviews
Back in print for the first time in more than a decade, Gene Wolfe's The Fifth Head of Cerberus is a universally acknowledged masterpiece of science fiction by one of the field's most brilliant writers.

Far out from Earth, two sister planets, Saint Anne and Saint Croix, circle each other in an eternal dance. It is said a race of shapeshifters once lived here, only to perish
Paperback, 252 pages
Published March 15th 1994 by Orb Books (first published April 1972)
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Palmyrah I think it’s a more general indictment of colonialism from a conservative, indeed somewhat racist, point of view. Colonialism opens possibilities for …moreI think it’s a more general indictment of colonialism from a conservative, indeed somewhat racist, point of view. Colonialism opens possibilities for gene-transfer between races. For Wolfe, in this book, miscegenation leads to racial pollution and finally to the creation of bastards who don’t know who their real fathers are. In the book, these results are always horrible or unbearable. It is a book about infection by and dissolution into the Other, with monsters born out of this unnatural congress.

Wolfe is a great writer, but his politics are deplorable.(less)
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Apr 15, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science-fiction
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
Jul 04, 2015 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
Marc Aramini
Apr 03, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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
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
L.S. Popovich
Aug 25, 2019 rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
Yórgos St.
Nov 02, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: gene-wolfe
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 Ma
Jan 26, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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:
Juho Pohjalainen
May 08, 2020 rated it liked it
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, manag ...more
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 o
Love of Hopeless Causes
Aug 08, 2017 rated it did not like it
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 c
Apr 02, 2019 rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Kate Sherrod
Nov 08, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: re-reads-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
Feb 15, 2012 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
David M
Feb 20, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 paci
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 rated it it was amazing
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
May 02, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: scifi, sfmasterworks
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
Jack Caulfield
Jun 01, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
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
Aug 26, 2007 rated it really liked it
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
Daniel Polansky
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. ...more
Jan 12, 2012 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: sf, sf-masterworks
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
Jun 17, 2011 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
Miloș Dumbraci
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.
Aug 02, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: read-2019
Three stories from different times, places, and people which come together at the end in that classic Sherlock Holmes-esque fashion—where you realise that the clues were in the text all along. A fun read that, although I've only read it once, I get the impression has a lot of reread value. ...more
Apr 22, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: sci-fi, nabcc-ss-2017
It took me 8 months to finish this trilogy of novellas, and what can I say it was an fantastic experience, trying to dissect every nook and cranny which Wolfe weaves meticulously in this book. This is not your normal science fiction book, which has only robots and space ships in it, but it is much more, Wolfe asks you questions regarding colonization,identity, cloning and much more. But it is up to the reader to find all these themes.

You can read all the three novellas, straight forward, as stan
May 15, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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
Link with further thoughts after reading it a 6th time:

Fourth time through this masterpiece, the first since 2012. It's a set of three interconnected novellas.

The first is flat out one of the best things ever written. A man returns home from prison and recalls his life before prison being raised by his father who was a mad scientist/brothel owner/former slave trader who performs experiments on him. It's set in a city modeled on New Orleans on one half of
Jan 22, 2012 rated it it was ok
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
Hey! I was checking my pile of books that have been read but not yet reviewed and ‘lo and behold…. I’m not that far behind. I actually remember some stuff about this one. So… yay.

Gene Wolfe is a guy with a rep. He is revered, in fact, in a lot of circles, for his contributions to the genre. I was listening to an interview a few weeks ago, coincidentally, while I was reading this novel, and out of left field (I think the interview was with someone about their non-fiction book or something) they
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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 f

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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.” 6 likes
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