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The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe

The Fifth Head of Cerberus (original 1972; edition 1975)

by Gene Wolfe

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1,146187,132 (3.99)68
Title:The Fifth Head of Cerberus
Authors:Gene Wolfe
Info:Quartet Books (1975), Edition: New Ed, Paperback, 192 pages
Collections:Your library, To read, Needs work
Tags:Science fiction, 20th century fiction, SF masterworks, TBR, Novellas, American author, Published: 1972, Acquired in 2010, Location: bedroom - TBR, Scan cover

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The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe (1972)

  1. 20
    Shadow & Claw: The First Half of The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe (Rynooo)
    Rynooo: If you enjoyed this, check out Wolfe's sci-fi fantasy epic The Book of the New Sun. It's mind-boggling, frequently shocking, and I'm not sure I understood it. Brillant stuff.
  2. 10
    Babel-17 / Empire Star by Samuel R. Delany (paradoxosalpha)
    paradoxosalpha: In each book there are multiple stories metafictionally linked to one another, in which far-future science fiction scenarios are used to explore archetypal human dilemmas and paradoxes regarding dominance, difference, communion, and communication.… (more)
  3. 00
    Celestis by Paul Park (whiten06)
    whiten06: Thought-provoking, literary science fiction dealing with issues of post-colonialism and identity.

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I just finished reading The Fifth Head of Cerberus and it is one of the best pieces of speculative fiction I've ever had the pleasure of reading. I have to admit, being honest, it took 1/3 of a way through the book for things to start click. There was a moment where I sat up right and had a "wait just a damn second" moment. Imagine my surprise where, in one period, I was just sort of pushing my way through the book, the next I found my self jumping back pages to confirm certain suspicions.

You may find that I'm being very vague and this is on purpose. If it were up to me I would prefer for users reading this to just grab a copy A.S.A.P. and get to reading. But there are a couple things the would be almost dishonest not to mention:

This is not easy/light reading

The book is brain candy at times, poetry at others, and frankly some parts of the book may seem completely pointless when first reading. You may have to fight your brain not to skim. If you are a skimmer you may not get much out of the three novellas.

With that said this is not an experimental tome like Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany. It is a reasonable legnth and it never jumps of the cliff of WTF that Dhalgren(not hating on Dhalgren. I love it) does. In fact, I'd say it's the opposite, it can be reserved in how much it lets you in.

Minor Spoilers

Seriously don't keep reading if you don't even like the hint of spoilers

The use of the unreliable narrator here is astonishing. I actually find some of the stuff hidden in the text horrifying. Some of it is left to the person reading. The idea of identity, what makes us us, how our culture shapes acceptability, and so much more. The final 10 our so pages were absolutely mind blowing. I'm not sure I've read so much crammed into this such a small amount of text in Science Fiction. If I could compare it to anything it would be Dubliners by James Joyce. On the surface you have these dull reserved stories but anyone paying attention finds so much more.

Anyway, sorry for the rambling, but my brain is on fire after reading this one. I wanted to write this while the high of reading it was still set in.
( )
2 vote JustinDrown | Oct 23, 2016 |
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. ( )
2 vote KateSherrod | Aug 1, 2016 |
Please read the full review on Weighing A Pig Doesn't Fatten It...

I once read that most of Wolfe’s main characters aren’t fully aware of the true nature of their world nor the role they play in it. This is for sure the case in The Book of the New Sun-cycle, and their successor, The Book of the New Urth. To a large extent, it is also the case for the protagonists in the three interconnected stories in this book, that predates Wolfe’s most succesful cycle about 8 years, but already shows a lot of the same ambiguity, narrative techniques (most notably the unreliable narrator) and themes (like the theme of memory).

The first story (about 75 pages) deals with (...) ( )
  bormgans | Dec 15, 2015 |
I love a good puzzle book, books where often not only the answer has to be deduced from the text, but so has the question. Books like The Quincunx, House Of Leaves and...um... I wish I knew more of them. Anyway, this is one, three linked novellas set on twin colony worlds where identity is fungible and we can't be sure whether the humans are aliens, the aliens are human or if the aliens really exist at all. What does it mean to be alien? What does it mean to be human? Are you a son or a brother or a twin or a clone? Has someone else replaced you or are you the replacement? Is the truth a tool of dystopian oppression? Does slavery set you free? One can have one's head wrecked by a book, be utterly chilled and yet emerged cleansed and confused. Being alive is a puzzle, after all, and we don't want to jump to the ultimate answer too soon. ( )
2 vote Nigel_Quinlan | Oct 21, 2015 |
One of the best pieces of fiction ever written. Not just science fiction, or science fantasy, but just fiction. If you only read one work by him, it should be this one. ( )
  Lyndatrue | Dec 14, 2013 |
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» Add other authors (2 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Gene Wolfeprimary authorall editionscalculated
Abadia, GuyTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Bober, RichardCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pennington, BruceCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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To Damon Knight, who one well-remembered June evening in 1966 grew me from a bean.
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When I was a boy my brother David and I had to go to bed early whether we were tired or not.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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This is the collection of three novellas: Fifth Head of Cerberus - A Story by John V. Marsch - V.R.T.
Please do not combine with the work containing only Fifth head of Cerberus.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0312890206, Paperback)

A brothel keeper's sons discuss genocide and plot murder; a young alien wanderer is pursued by his shadow double; and a political prisoner tries to prove his identity, not least to himself. Gene Wolfe's first novel consists of three linked sections, all of them elegant broodings on identity, sameness, and strangeness, and all of them set on the vividly evoked colony worlds of Ste. Croix and Ste. Anne, twin planets delicately poised in mutual orbit.

Marsch, the victim in the third story, is the apparent author of the second and a casual visitor whose naïve questions precipitate tragedy in the first. The sections dance around one another like the planets of their settings. Clones, downloaded personalities inhabiting robots, aliens that perhaps mimicked humans so successfully that they forgot who they were, a French culture adopted by its ruthless oppressors--there are lots of ways to lose yourself, and perhaps the worst is to think that freedom consists of owning other people, that identity is won at the expense of others.

It is easy to be impressed by the intellectual games of Wolfe's stunning book and forget that he is, and always has been, the most intensely moral of SF writers. --Roz Kaveney, Amazon.co.uk

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:33 -0400)

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Far from Earth two sister planets, Sainte Anne and Sainte Croix, circle each other. It is said that a race of shapeshifting aliens once lived here, only to become extinct when human colonists arrived.

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