Flowers for Algernon (novelette) by Keyes, Daniel, 1959

Flowers for Algernon (novelette) by Keyes, Daniel

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Flowers for Algernon, 1959, by Daniel Keyes, originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction: When people say that SF is a gloomy body of literature, I think that they have stories like this week's in mind. Flowers for Algernon is not a tale of the failure of science to make people's lives better. The operation that was performed in this story was expected to fail, so what it really is about is how science and scientists treat other humans like lab rats, and the effect that experiments that are not wisely performed can wreck havoc on the lives of the participants. Five out of five stars.

Flowers for Algernon is about a medical experiment, a surgery really, that was designed to make the subject more intelligent. Algernon was a mouse who has been put to the knife, and whose intelligence tripled because of it. Charley was a good natured retarded man with an intelligence of 68. He was so good natured because he was too simple to know that his "friends" spent most of their time making fun of him with idiotic jokes about his mental capacity. The team that operated on Algernon wanted to operate on a human being to see if they could achieve the same effects. Charley was chosen because he was willing to work with the team, and was not angry at the world. The team performed the operation, even though they knew that the boost in intelligence was only going to last for a very short time. That is to say, none of the animal subject to date which had undergone the procedure had retained the intelligence gains past a certain point in time, and nobody expected Charlie to be any different. They just wanted to produce some amazing results so that they could write a paper and become famous.

The story is told in diary format from Charlie’s diary, which at first is called his "progris riprot." Charlie is sweet, kind and very optimistic about the surgery he has been given.

I asked Dr Strauss if Ill beat Algernon in the race after the operashun and he said maybe. If the operashun works Ill show that mouse I can be as smart as he is. maybe smarter. Then Ill be abel to read better and spell the words good and know lots of things and be like other people. I want to be smart like other people. If it works perminint they will make everybody smart all over the wurld.

But as Charlie gets smarter, he realized that for all of his life he actually had been the butt of jokes at the hands of those whom he thought loved him, especially his coworkers. He was a janitor at a mill, and the other employees were always smiling and patting Charlie on the back, so he thought that they were being kind to him. What they were really doing was saying things like "you just pulled a Charlie Gordon," whenever someone screwed up. Charlie just did not understand that they were calling him foolish and stupid. Unfortunately for Charlie, he made this realization just in time to also realize that if they teased in the past him for being stupid, they now feared him for being smart. Some fools even likened his place in the world to that of Eve's, who sinned by eating from the tree of knowledge, and brought sickness, death and pain to the world. Charley developed a strong sense of pride, driven by what he saw as his own foolishness before, laughing with those who laughed at him.

Eventually Charlie became a hermit who just got smarter and smarter. He became so smart that he sometimes lost the ability to communicate the complex concepts he came up with because of the limits of all the languages he had taught himself. Sitting alone all day Charlie became nasty and spiteful, and when his intelligence started to fail, just as Algernon's had, he reverted to his former level of intellect, but kept all the hate and anger in his heart.

I have read this story I don't know how many times in the past; twice this year alone, and it never fails to strike me as one of the most unfair things I have ever experienced. Not only to be given that much intellect, but to have it taken away, with no say or control, and to be left with the core realization that the world is against you, just pounds me in the heart every time. I don't have any trouble seeing how Charlie lost out completely on this one. I do think that sometimes ignorance is bliss, and Charlie had that taken away from him, all for an "experiment" that everyone knew would fail. Science ruined a beautiful soul here, so if you are of the ilk that thinks SF is all about doom and gloom, this one should be your rallying cry.

Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 5 star(s)


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