Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe

September 20, 2004 at 12:00 am | Posted in 5 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment

I’m beginning this review after reading this book once, but the fact is every Gene Wolfe book I have read has demanded rereading and this the most of any of them. The book is a collection of three novellas, but still very much a single work. The first novella, which lends the book its title, was published separately and won a Nebula. It’s obvious why–it’s brilliant, approaching “Fiat Lux” as my favorite novella. But unlike the second and third pieces of Canticle for Leibowitz, the other two stories in Fifth Head are profoundly different in content and style while at the same time elaborating on the same themes and issues. They also force a reexamination of the first story, which is one reason why I’ll have to reread it. Forcing a re-examination is a double edged effect…it can feel like a cheap shot, but here it’s not a “ha-ha” bit of misleading the reader but instead a situation where everything the reader thought and felt before was valid but now there are new layers.

I’ve only read a few of them but I suspect all of Wolfe’s books are puzzles. Fifth Head of Cerebrus is like a mystery novel, the sort where the careful reader can solve the mystery on their own, except the final chapter has been removed, so instead of being told they are right, the reader must piece it together themselves. Whether to not this is a “good” literary style is debatable. Ultimately it comes down to whether the book rewards the effort it demands. Fifth Head of Cerebrus is a great book and it is very rewarding.

December 2004 reread update: This time I felt I understood the book the entire way through. I know that the second and third novellas are sort of tough going the first time through, but I am perplexed that people whose opinions I respect (like Stephen Wu, who calls second and third sections “mediocre” and “terrible” respectively) don’t appreciate it. If you have read this once and didn’t like the second two novellas and can stomach another attempt I strongly encourage it. This isn’t massively cryptic; the suspicions one has at the end of the first read-through are almost certainly the correct ones unless you were skimming, and on the second read-through you will see how it all comes together so beautifully. At least, I hope so, because I love this book. There’s so little genuinely great work out there that it’s a shame when it goes unappreciated. I don’t have anything much to add to my review above…when I universally love a book (as I love just about every Wolfe book I have read) there’s little for me to say besides recommend it fervently.

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