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Beth Meacham, David Brin

Flowers for Algernon

Flowers for Algernon - Daniel Keyes
"She said for a person who God gave so little to you did more than a lot of people with brains they never even used. I said that all my friends are smart people and their good. They like me and they never did anything that wasnt nice. Then she got something in her eye and she had to run out to the ladys room."
Ah! Right in the feels! (Don't worry about the typos, they are supposed to be there!).

I read Flowers for Algernon decades ago in its original short story form, this is one of those stories that will always stay with you. If you are a science fiction fan and this story has somehow been overlooked you don’t even need to read the rest of this review, just grab a copy and read one of the all-time greats.

The short story version is so memorable that I never really felt the necessity of reading this longer novel length version. Until now that is, I was looking at NPR’s Top 100 Science-Fiction, Fantasy Books list and it occurred to me that one of the three top 40 books that I have yet to read is the novel length version of Flowers for Algernon. There are numerous other “Best sci-fi books ever” lists online and practically all of them include “Algernon”.

Flowers for Algernon is the story of Charlie Gordon a mentally handicapped young man with an IQ of 70. He volunteered for an experiment to boost his intellect with the result that his IQ is more than tripled. The story is narrated in the first person by Charlie in epistolary format, in the form of Progress Reports for the brain boosting project. Prior to the experimental operation Charlie was living almost blissfully as a "retard" (this very blunt word is frequently used throughout the novel, so I won't employ a euphemism here) he had a simple job he could do and friends. However, he is understandably frustrated that he can not understand most of what is going on in the world. What people are talking about, the jokes he laughs along with, the news etc. After his operation his intellect develops fairly rapidly and he begins to understand that people are not as smart or as nice as he had hitherto believed them to be.

The first salient theme of this book that I noticed is that possessing an intellect is a mixed blessing. Ignorance is indeed bliss. As Charlie’s IQ begins to jump by leaps and bounds he finds that his EQ is lagging far behind. Being intelligent does not equip him to deal with people. What happen later on in the book is tragic but definitely ventures into spoilers territory so I won’t go into it.

The book is beautifully but unpretentiously written, making for a fast, emotional reading experience. The characters are all believable, Charlie himself, Alice, his former teacher at a school for “special children” and the love of his life, and the various professors. Special mention must be made for the eponymous Algernon, the mouse that has his intelligence boosted before Charlie and become a sort of mini-Charlie, or a trail blazer for Charlie to follow. Daniel Keyes has made the mouse a very vivid character even without speaking parts. His eventual fate is one of the saddest parts if the book.

I find that the original short story is a more intense reading experience and has a stronger emotional impact. This is due to the conciseness of the story. The novel, however, fleshes out the story with much more background details about Charlie’s family members, his childhood, his changed attitude toward the scientists and even his sex life. The additional details are interesting enough not to be superfluous but they do not make a great story greater.

While the science of the intelligence boosting project is not explained in details this is not actually a “soft sci-fi” novel, there is enough discussion of “competitive inhibition of enzymes”, “cortical control”, “blocking the metabolic pathway" etc. to lend the book some verisimilitude (and to keep hard sci-fi fans happy).

There are several notable profound passages in this book, I particularly like these two:
“But I've learned that intelligence alone doesn't mean a damned thing. Here in your university, intelligence, education, knowledge, have all become great idols. But I know now there's one thing you've all overlooked: intelligence and education that hasn't been tempered by human affection isn't worth a damn.”
Also this existential question:
“Who's to say that my light is better than your darkness? Who's to say death is better than your darkness? Who am I to say?”
Read it and weep my friends.
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EDIT June 18, 2014: I have just heard that Daniel Keyes died on June 15. It is sad to lose yet another great author, but I also envy him to have achieved immortality of sorts through his works. Flowers for Algernon especially. R.I.P Mr. Keyes, thank you for this beautiful story which I will always cherish.