The Fifth Head of Cerberus, by Gene Wolfe

I don’t know how to start this review. I’m not entirely sure what I can say about The Fifth Head of Cerberus… and I’m even less confident that I know what order to say it in.

Perhaps that’s rather fitting. I’m used, after all, to reading stories – narratives, that move, like music, or like a stream, from a beginning to an end. Gene Wolfe’s 1972 debut novel* is not like that. There are, I suppose, narratives – in the plural – but it would be a mistake to think of this novel as being a story.

Image result for the fifth head of cerberus

What Wolfe’s writing reminds me of primarily is, paradoxically, Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. Not, I hasten to point out before the chorus of confused jeers enters, because they’re in any way similar in topic, in structure, or in style. But because Chesterton’s novel has the subtitle: A Nightmare. It’s easily forgotten as you read the book, but when you bear it in mind the oddities of that surreal, uncategorisable story, suddenly the author’s intent is made clear. The story is strange because Chesterton is writing with the logic of bad dreams.

I don’t know if Wolfe wrote his book with the intent of emulating a nightmare, but that is indeed the result – a novel that’s surreal not in the superficial sense of melted clocks and laughing goats, but in the deeper sense of obeying a dream-like and unsettling logic. Events occur and for the most part they are coherent and overtly rational – this is not a bizarro novel. But the logic of the novel is less concerned with the development of an orchestrating narrative, and more with the persistence of certain themes and images, which recur and mutate – Wolfe is not so much developing themes as meditating on them. Dreaming of them.

But back to the concrete. The Fifth Head of Cerberus is a novel, because it says it is. In form, however, it is a series of three novellas. These novellas share a world, and there is some overlap in characters and events, and much more overlap in themes and images, to the extent that each novella can be considered to shed some light on the others in a way – but not to the extent that they form any co-ordinated narrative, or even to the extent that any is necessary for understanding the other two. The novel is like a dream fragmented into three parts, united by its obsessions and its singular presentation, but wholly unalike. The three novellas differ from one another not only in their protagonists, their plots and their structures, but in their entire style.

Related image

Part one is “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” proper. This is a comfortably solid, yet uncomfortably cold, memoir, told by a man of his childhood in Port-Mimizon, a city on the interstellar colony world of Sainte Croix. The technological capacity is of the far future, but much of the technology actually in use, and even more of the culture, is of the past; the result is something that feels more like a Victorian ‘mad scientist’ story than a conventional sort of science fiction. That archaism is extended to the prose, which is precise, elegant, hard, unsympathetic – of an older age. [the introduction suggests a comparison to Proust, though I can’t vouch for this myself]. The narrator details dispassionately aspects of his peculiar childhood, and his peculiar family, in their peculiar city. This is probably the least interesting but best-written of the stories: its scope is relatively small (geographically and conceptually), but it is written attractively and compellingly. This was, incidentally, the original and most acclaimed of the novellas.

Part two is ““A Story,” by John Marsch”, and takes the action across space to Sainte Croix’s sister-world, Sainte Anne. It is hallucinatory and magic-realist, following a young man who is (or is not) a member of the ‘aboriginal’, pre-colonization, intelligent species of the planet, as different tribal groups (or species) contend with one another and the elements in a state of technological primitiveness. What is real and what is dream and what is myth blur into one another as the man and his twin live colliding lives. The rudiments of the story are familiar – the ‘primitive society’ story (set either on another world or the far future of our own) is a staple of science fiction – but Wolfe’s version is given a greater resonance by his mythic, magical style. This is the most interesting but perhaps least succesful of the three novellas: the layer upon layer of conflict and comparison shrouded in symbols and misconceptions make for a fascinating piece of worldbuilding, but the narrative itself is somewhat flat and unsurprising.

Part three takes up almost half the volume: “V.R.T.” is a story constructed out of disparate stories, as a military officer reviews a seemingly disorganised collection of materials – school composition books, journal entries from different points in time, and the records of interrogations, all out of their chronological order. The style accordingly varies, from expedition diaries through to totalitarian interrogation dialogues, taking in a little Kafka along the way. This is the most ambitious of the three parts, and perhaps ultimately the most satisfying, though it’s by conventional standards the least coherent and polished, and there are a few places where I thought Wolfe’s command of tone was less than watertight.

The three novellas together, however, sum to more than their individual successes: it’s like having three mirrors in three different rooms, or three mirrors in a triangle facing one another. The reflection-upon-reflection of the three together creates a wholly different and more enthralling effet than any one mirror could produce on its own.

Image result for the fifth head of cerberus

On the surface, the novel’s primary topic may be colonization. Sainte Anne and Sainte Croix were both colonised from Earth – but nothing is that simple. We are given hints of the internal dynamics between the aboriginal groups on the one hand, and on the other hand the Earth colonization was originally conducted by the French, who were in turn conquered and oppressed by the English (well, English-speakers, anyway). More tantalising, however, are the suggestions of less obvious colonial dynamics: most famous is the suggestion, running throughout all three stories, that the planets have not been colonized. Perhaps, the theory goes, the humans did not massacre the aboriginals – perhaps the aboriginals massacred the humans, adopted their appearance and culture to appear uninteresting to Earth, and have over time forgotten their own origins, lost in their own performance?

This, however, is only the entry point into more universal themes. Where is the line, for example, between identity and performance? Twins, clones and reflections feature prominently – what distinguishes one twin from another, when their genes are the same?

Or to ask the fundamental question: if two people enter a room, their faces unknown, and only one person leaves, how can we tell who has left, and who has been left behind? What if they themselves have an unreliable memory of what happened in the room?

Image result for the fifth head of cerberus

Or even more fundamentally: what is personal identity? Wolfe’s novel recalls many of the famous thought experiments on the nature of identity. Is who you are defined by your body, perhaps? But then what of clones and twins, who share the same genes? If two twins developed identically, physically, would they then be the same person? Or is who you are a matter of continuity of mental processes – the fact that you today are like, and remember being, you yesterday, and so on back to your birth? But then, what happens when something occurs to break that chain of custody – madness, say, or illness? Or is who you are not thing, but a collection of facts about you that remain in general even when small details change? If so, what if somebody set out to take over your life, altering themselves fact by fact until they were indistinguishable from you? Would they then BE you? Or maybe who you are is defined by society. Yet what happens then if you leave society, or enter it unexpectedly? And what if society decides to take it upon itself to redefine who you are without your consent?

These questions will of course be familiar – perhaps over-familiar – and Wolfe neither offers clear answers nor even really explores the questions in any depth, or with any determination. The intent here is not to offer a thesis, but to disarrange our preconceptions. To burrow in the sand under our feet; to undermine us. Like a nightmare, Wolfe plays on our uncertainties, teases at our loose ends.

Image result for the fifth head of cerberus

The result is a troubling and intriguing novel, which does not so much fail to come to a conclusion as simply never attempt it. It’s not a story; it’s a dip into a dark, obsessive dream. It’s wonderfully and effectively written, and it is no surprise in the least that, while it may not have overwhelmed readers at the time (Locus readers voted it only the 11th best science fiction novel of the year…), it established Wolfe as a major voice in the genre. In that regard, it’s almost astonishing how accomplished this novel is – after one false start novel and a few short stories, Wolfe here suddenly writes like an aged master of his craft. The scope and the ambition of this novel may be nothing compared to – [OH! THAT’S how this fits into his other books! It all makes sense now!] – The Book of the New Sun, but the writing is just as impressive, and the novel as a whole rather more intense.

It’s hard to love this book; it’s hard, I think, to love Wolfe. His stories, like nightmares, tend to be both bodiless and underlyingly nasty. But it’s very easy to be impressed. Despite the unpleasantnesses and the artistic conceits, this is actually an easy novel to enjoy, for those who are open to such things. And one that will linger long in the subconscious…

Image result for the fifth head of cerberus



*ok, it was his second novel, but nobody talks about Operation Ares. Not Wolfe, not his fans, not the marketing departments. It came out in hardback in the US in 1970, and it’s never been republished there, although there were a few copies printed in Britain later that decade. Apparently it’s not actually awful, but it’s also not really Wolfe…


Adrenaline: 3/5. There is a good deal of tension. But although these are short tales, they’re also rather slow, and lacking any big explosions.

Emotion: 3/5. Wolfe’s content may be packed with emotive turns, but his style is cold and remote, whichever voice he adopts.

Thought: 5/5. Every aspect of this novel, from its thematic questions down to the tantalising, piecemeal way it drips out information, is geared to keep the reader’s mind constantly overheating.

Beauty: 4/5. Wolfe at times (particularly in the first section) writes with truly elegant prose, and conveys some striking imagery.

Craft: 5/5. Perhaps I could dock half a mark for a couple of paragraphs that I felt didn’t quite hit their mark in the third section. But my system doesn’t have half-marks for precisely this reason…

Endearingness: 3/5. On the one hand, this is the opposite of endearing – it’s positively off-putting. On the other hand, it’s off-putting in a way close to endearment, if endearment is seen as a form of benign and mild obsession…

Originality: 5/5. All three sections have literary precursors. But putting the three together, in a world like this, with themes and narratives like this… there’s no mistaking it for anything else.

Image result for the fifth head of cerberus

Overall: 6/7. VERY GOOD. In fact, I’d call it just a hair under brilliant. If it were more engaging, or more satisfying, or more approachable, or perhaps just plain longer, it would be brilliant. As it is, maybe the high end of ‘very good’ is more appropriate.

Either way, The Fifth Head of Cerberus is a masterful and unsettling display of authorial skill that should be required reading for fans of a more intellectual strain of science fiction – and, indeed, for genre-tolerant fans of literary fiction more generally.


…and one more cover for luck:

Image result for the fifth head of cerberus

4 thoughts on “The Fifth Head of Cerberus, by Gene Wolfe

  1. Hans-Werner Hatting says:

    I knew this sounded familiar. Your review made me think of a half-forgotten story I read in an anthology over 30 years ago, so I went and searched in my library, and indeed, I found that what I had read was the first part of what you reviewed (“5th Head” proper). I had forgotten a lot of the details, but the story had made an impression on me back then and some memory of its general athmosphere had lingered through the years.
    I re-read it and it’s still impressive. All the little things that are mentioned seemingly in passing and then click together with other details later. The athmosphere of a closed, limited space that is evoked so well, the purpose of which becomes clear at the end. The evocation of a mind trapped inside its own obsessions, the realisation that mistakes may be repeated endlessly…
    I think I have to go and find the other parts of that opus.

  2. Yes, do! The three parts are very different – so there’s certainly no guarantee that liking one will mean liking the others – but I do think they fit together very well.

    Your comment brings to mind something I thought about regarding the first part – that I was uncertain about at the time, but in hindsight think I like: the fact that it’s such a straight old-fashioned SF story. Or, rather, it’s the plot of a straight, old-fashioned SF story, but told in the style of something completely different. I’m currently re-reading an Asimov anthology and you could almost imagine Asimov, or a similar golden-age writer, using the core conceit of the Wolfe novella, but presenting it very differently…

  3. […] canon that were new to me, and that I’d been meaning to read for years (The Dispossessed and The Fifth Head of Cerberus), both of which turned out to be […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s