SF Masterwork of the Week: The Fifth Head of Cerberus

‘Wolfe is so good he leaves me speechless’
~ Ursula Le Guin

‘A truly extraordinary work . . . a masterpiece’
~ Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels

‘A richly imaginative exploration of the nature of identity and individuality’
~ The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction


In case it’s escaped anyone’s attention, Gene Wolfe is rather special. He’s the winner of four World Fantasy Awards, two Nebulas, a John W. Campbell Award, a BSFA Award and a British Fantasy Award, as well as being an inductee into the SF Hall of Fame and the recipient of the SFWA Grand Master and World Fantasy Life Achievement Awards. Many people (your humble correspondent included) would point to his magnificent tetralogy The Book of the New Sun as being his best work, but there’s a significant case to be made for The Fifth Head of Cerberus.

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. But one man believes they still exist, somewhere out in the wilderness.

In The Fifth Head of Cerberus, Gene Wolfe brilliantly interweaves three tales: a scientist’s son gradual discovery of the bizarre secret of his heritage; a young man’s mythic dreamquest for his darker half; the mystifying chronicle of an anthropologist’s seemingly-arbitrary imprisonment. Gradually, a mesmerising pattern emerges.


As BSFA and John W. Campbell Award-winning writer Adam Roberts says in his introduction:

There is something uniquely haunting about this this novel and what haunts is this something extra, this something that is spectrally supererogatory, something hard precisely to place or pin down. The novel, once read, preys on your mind . . . It is pure Gene Wolfe.

The Fifth Head of Cerberus is available as an SF Masterworks paperback and an SF Gateway eBook, and is the perfect introduction to the work of one of SF greatest writers.

And, as ever, you can fins more of Gene Wolfe‘s novels at his SF Gateway author page and read more about him in his entry at The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.