Flowers for Algernon (SF Masterworks No25)
by Daniel Keyes (Orion Millennium, £6.99, 216 pages, paperback; first published 1959, this edition 13 January 2000.)
In an age where the publishing industry seems to believe that the quality of a book can be determined its thickness, or its saleability only by its association with a movie or a TV series, it is sobering to re-read a work like Daniel Keyes' classic novel Flowers for Algernon, the latest volume in Millennium's excellent 'SF Masterworks' series. In a mere 216 pages, Keyes proves that all you really need to do is take a simple idea, state it in an uncomplicated manner, and let the characters work things out for themselves. This Keyes does marvellously. The initial novella won a Hugo award in 1960, the novel version won a Nebula, and the film version, Charly, won an Oscar. All because it is simple, honest and direct. Here, there be no dragons, cyber or otherwise.
The story is told through the journal of Charlie Gordon, a gentle floor sweeper with a low IQ who is recruited to take part in an experiment to enhance his brainpower. The experiment seems to be a great success at first, as Charlie rapidly develops into a genius, only to realise for himself that the experiment was fatally flawed, and that he will just as rapidly lose his newfound intelligence. The journal runs right through the whole sequence, from Charlie's near-illiterate pre-experiment thoughts, through his mounting discovery of the world he had been shut out of before, his re-assessment of his own past life, the discovery of his own likely fate, to the heart-wrenching descent back into a moronic state.
The success of Keyes' book stems from his careful unveiling of Charlie's nature and the effect he has on the people around him. As Charlie's intellect increases, so his relationships with those around him changes, and Keyes keeps that central to the story, making it not so much the tale of a scientific experiment, as a morality play about how precious intelligence is, and how people can abuse and misuse it. In the beginning, Charlie is manipulated by his workmates for their own cruel humour, but Charlie doesn't realise he is the butt of their jokes. Before he descends into the dark again, Charlie manages to escape the manipulation of the scientists, who by then are revealed as too over-specialised and unable to comprehend fully what is going on inside Charlie's mind. It is a success that makes the final chapters even more heartbreaking, as Charlie loses his hard-won knowledge little by little, his once-brilliant mind fading back into the shadows from whence he came.
If you've never read Flowers for Algernon, than take the opportunity of this re-issue to remedy that fact. It really is a marvellous piece of writing, one well deserving the title of "Masterwork".
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© John D Owen 26 February 2000