Everything Is Nice

Beating the nice nice nice thing to death (with fluffy pillows)

‘The Fifth Head Of Cerberus’ by Gene Wolfe

with 13 comments

Gene Wolfe is a sacred cow of science fiction, consistently held up as a demonstration that – in the right hands – the genre can be high literature. So how come the only two stories I had read by him – ‘Viewpoint’ and ‘The Ziggurat’ – where terrible? Was I just unlucky or was everyone else mad?

When I asked this elsewhere there was a general concensus that as Wolfe got older he became more conservative and more Catholic to the detriment of his writing. The two stories I had read were from this later period. I should read his earlier stuff. In particular, I should read ‘The Fifth Head Of Cerberus’ since it is the greatest science fiction novella ever written.

I have now read the novella and can confirm that it is indeed very good, as are ‘”A Story” by John Marsch’ and ‘V.R.T.’, the two linked novellas which accompany it. I was reminded of Sacsayhuamán, its interlocking parts constructed so seamlessly that it shouldn’t be possible. The reader is treat with respect which then must then earn and behind all this there is a deep, ingenuous intelligence. It is only a shame this intelligence seems to have calcified so unpleasantly in later years.

Written by Martin

25 February 2010 at 13:20

Posted in sf, short stories

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13 Responses

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  1. I like Wolfe’s novels – some more than others – but I can’t stand his short fiction. And I’ve never understood why others do.

    The Fifth Head of Cerebus will, I suspect, remain a classic of the genre for longer than The Book of the New Sun.


    25 February 2010 at 13:55

  2. I suggest you need a broader base to judge on before you conclude the later Wolfe is not a good writer. I say this as a decidedly non-conservative non-Catholic.

    And clearly I (and many other not-ignorant readers) disagree with you about “The Ziggurat.” That story has divided a lot of readers, though, since there is a difference of opinion on whether to read the viewpoint character’s overwhelming misogyny as reflecting Wolfe’s own opinions of women. It is true however that Wolfe’s treatment of female characters is problematic for many of us.

    But the body of Wolfe’s impressive short fiction, from “Cerberus” to “Seven American Nights” to “Forlesen” to “The Detective of Dreams” to a dozen others, leaves no doubt in my mind that he is one of the best writers of short sf ever to set pen to paper.

    Your mileage may differ.

    John Kessel

    25 February 2010 at 15:26

  3. I suggest you need a broader base to judge on before you conclude the later Wolfe is not a good writer.

    It is true my sample size is very small. However, when I consulted a group of people who were much more familar with his work this did seem to be the consensus. This feeling has also been reinforced by reviews of his recent work.

    I read and enjoyed your discussion with Paul Witcover regarding ‘The Ziggurat’ but unfortunately I was unable to reconcil this with my own reading. I have been persuaded to read more by Wolfe though. He has two stories in The Ascent Of Wonder so I will be reading those at some point in the near-ish future. After that I am hoping to read Peace but then I will be investigating the core of his short fiction.


    25 February 2010 at 15:57

  4. Martin: to repeat what I think I’ve said in email: Peace is definitely the book to read next, and then if you want “the core of his short fiction”, the place to go is The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories.

    John: I’m interested that you cite “The Detective of Dreams” as a peak work of Wolfe’s short fiction. It’s obviously very deeply felt, but I always find it quite unWolfean because it enforces one particular kind of reading, the Christian one: it’s like a Harlan Ellison piece in that respect.

    Graham Sleight

    25 February 2010 at 22:06

  5. I really love a lot of Gene Wolfe’s novels, even some (though not all) of his recent work. His short stories, on the other hand…well, he apparently has a very low threshold for what he considers a worthy short story, seeing as he’s published what seems like thousands of them.

    It’s not that he hasn’t written some extremely good short stories, it’s just that when I read his collections most of them seem like writing exercises, and I’m always surprised to hear his short fiction so widely endorsed.

    All that said, Fifth Head of Cerberus is one of my absolute favorite novels, but I think of it as a novel, just like I think of, say, Canticle of Leibowitz as a novel. Yes, I know those stories were published separately, but the whole is a lot greater than the individual pieces in this case.

    Matt Hilliard

    26 February 2010 at 12:42

  6. Graham:

    I agree that “The Detective of Dreams” does not have the ambiguities of much of Wolfe’s best short fiction. I think I like it because it does not read like a piece of Christian propaganda, or that it’s modest sincerity gives it a depth that lifts it, for me, beyond the homiletic.

    John Kessel

    27 February 2010 at 04:30

  7. Kessel: I’m glad it worked for you; it didn’t work at all for me. I was intrigued up until the end, where I reacted with disgust. It left me with the same bad taste that reading C.S. Lewis does.


    2 March 2010 at 00:37

  8. Gwren: I’m not much of a fan of C.S. Lewis the Christian propagandist. It seems to me he puts his thumb rather heavily on the scales when weighing the behavior of his characters.

    Wolfe, at least in this story, doesn’t hector the reader. And as I say, I am not at all a religionist.

    John Kessel

    2 March 2010 at 16:10

  9. Graham:

    Boy, are you wrong about ‘The Detective of Dreams”. Pleae, forgive me my English – I’m not in command of it to write lengthy esseys. Nevertheles: let me try to explain “TDOD” to you, at least it’s my take on the (horror) story.

    Bottom line: even in our dreams, even if we “saved” and even in the castle of the Lord we are still sinners. So: even in heaven, rescued by the Dream Master, you are in the after life in danger to sin, because it is human to do so. Therefore be careful what you are dreaming of – the hounds of hell (or the open door with the claw) are awaiting you.
    Doesn’t matter how good you think you were in this world, in that other world you are a sinner – nothing you can do about.


    21 March 2010 at 14:01

  10. Just reread John Clutes effusive review of the Wolfe short story collection (Best of). The “problem” with Wolfe’s short stories is that if you were not impressed by it, you feel that you must have missed something. Given the complexities of, say, 5HoC, where there is thirty years of commentary to point out how much I missed when I first read it,
    then I have reason to worry.

    David Duffy

    27 March 2010 at 01:13

  11. Regarding Wolfe’s short fiction, it has changed over time. Whatever your reaction was to The Island of Dr Death & Other Stories & Other Stories, it simply will not be the *same* for Endangered Species which will not be the same for Starwater Strains.

    I confess that I am perplexed that anyone could read Counting Cats in Zanzibar have a bad opinion of Wolfe’s short fiction.

    I hearby proclaim that the stories in Innocents Aboard are absolutely delicious and I regularly recommend them to new readers…also, they are not particularly SciFi.


    27 March 2010 at 01:31

  12. […] of novellas, collected under the title The Fifth Head of Cerberus. I was inspired by Martin over at Everything Is Nice, who identified a similar gap in his reading. “I was reminded of Sacsayhuamán,” […]

  13. […] inspired me to read the Wolfe story straight away. Well, not just that, you will remember that had bad experiences with recent Wolfe and so want do if this was any different. It was, in so far that it wasn’t […]

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