Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes

Flowers for Algernon is a quite different SF book to anything else I’ve read so far, I think in that it’s entirely contemporary (written in the 1960s) except for the single SF conceit at its heart; and also that its concern is largely with human psychology.

The SF conceit here is that a new operation has been developed which can make people more intelligent. This technique has been tried on mice, and now it is being trialled on the first human being, a man called Charlie who has what we would now term learning difficulties.

As part of the experiment, Charlie keeps a diary – which forms our novel. He starts off barely able to write; but as the treatment goes on, this improves. – Straightaway I see the potential for this in terms of novelistic form and style: we start off something akin to the first part of As I Lay Dying, and end up with him writing like Proust, or I don’t know, Martin Heideigger; – but sadly Daniel Keyes doesn’t take it that far, contenting himself after the first part with the standard simple English of most novels.

Charlie was ignorantly happy in his life before the experiment, but as he develops he begins to see a) that the people he thought were his friends back then were mocking him; and b) now that he’s actually more intelligent than everyone else, he still can’t really relate to people. Also, his emotional development doesn’t mirror his intellectual development – although this is an area again which I feel has much greater possibilities than those explored in the novel. Although it’s a broad statement, I’ve always felt there’s a gulf between SF writers and literary writers in their human understanding; and I sense with this novel, issues in human development are not wholly thought through. That he reads say Dostoevsky is linked to his intellectual development; but novels, it seems to me, are not really intellectual – there are much more to do with your understanding of society and your own emotions; and if these areas of his life are underdeveloped, what will he find of worth in Dostoevsky? See also Frankenstein no doubt (doesn’t the monster read Paradise Lost?), which this novel at times resembles.

There seemed a lot of other problems with this novel too: the attitude of the scientists towards Charlie, and the way they talk about him even when present, seemed to my mind unlikely (unless one were to suppose scientists too entirely without a sense of human understanding), and largely just a plot trigger; and the inherent problem of portraying someone whose intellectual capacity is way beyond any other human was not, I felt, sufficiently avoided by the author (hard, I suppose, in a first person narrative). Also, the flash-backs to his former life I began to find tedious; but for all this in general I found it an interesting book.

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5 thoughts on “Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes

  1. “I’ve always felt there’s a gulf between SF writers and literary writers in their human understanding”

    This is why I stopped reading SF once I began to read more literary fiction; it all seemed very juvenile and shallow, the characters not at all like real humans. I complain to my SF-reading friends (annoyingly, I’m sure) that those writers can only seem to create adolescent boy fantasies of people to wander around inside fairly obvious thought experiments.

    Thanks for pointing out the similarities between “Algernon” and “Frankenstein.” When I read “Algernon,” I hadn’t yet read “Frankenstein,” and by the time I read “Frankenstein,” I’d forgotten all about “Algernon.”

    I’m often bothered by fictional portrayals of geniuses; they never seem all that bright, as if the novelist can’t really imagine that someone is smarter than he is, so he uses himself as the obvious pattern for genius.

  2. It’s unfair to SF I know, but I was thinking the other day about George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels, which I’d rewatched and found generally as bad as before, but one of the reasons in particular I found for them being bad is that the trilogy is an attempt to justify why Darth Vader turned out evil, and this justification is just so laughable. It’s because he was in love and he found out she was going to die (in a prophecy, no less). The whole romance in fact is embarrassing. I have no idea what Natalie Portman could ever find in Hayden Christensen (though one wonders too what George Lucas did). My favourite bit is when he kills all the children. – And why does Yoda pretend to be an old man who struggles to get around when he’s in fact fleet of foot? – And why does every keep saying the dark side of the force is superior, when it always loses?

    Cinema is much better at portraying genius: just fill a blackboard with equations. In literature, you’re probably better off using a third-person narrative which can avoid specifics, or even better a first-person narrator who is himself ordinary but is telling the story of the genius. Or you could just be a genius yourself. Or just have him approximate the manner of continental philosophy (though you may then get mistaken for parody).

  3. Very funny, in a grotesque kind of way, to be reminded of the almost incredible shortcomings of those Star Wars prequels. They must be among the worst films ever made, certainly the worst massively-successful ones.

    Imagine if Lucas had had the imagination to have portrayed Anakin as a disgruntled Jedi gofer, chafing under the relentless restrictions of Kenobi’s tutelage, who saw another option and just decided he liked being evil and (most importantly) in charge?

    As it is, the films are an endless melange of undecipherable, hyperactive CGI battles, strung together with vast sequences of brief, pointless, almost meaningless exposition.

  4. I’m sure there’s one of those half-assed culture pieces to be written in the question of whether prequels are fundamentally worse than sequels. Basically I see a sequel as either replicating the original or taking it further, whereas a prequel is always attempting to explain aspects of the original which don’t need explanation.

    I say all this in full knowledge that was I’m writing at the moment is essentially a prequel.

  5. “an endless melange of undecipherable, hyperactive CGI battles, strung together with vast sequences of brief, pointless, almost meaningless exposition”

    There’s a lot of that in Hollywood these days. A few years ago I watched one of the new James Bond films and it was incomprehensible:

    Me: Who is this villain? What does he want?
    My Date: He seems very angry. Wait: he’s lecturing his henchmen about being evil. Now he’s opening champagne.
    Me: No, it still makes no sense. What’s on fire?
    My Date: A big building. Maybe an embassy? No, a factory?
    Me: Who’s the girl? Is she a love interest?
    My Date: No, she’s–wait, I think–no, I have no idea. Now she’s dead. Bond looks so sad.
    Me: But didn’t he kill her?
    My Date: He seems to regret it.

    And on like that, with car chases and machine guns, too.

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