Thursday, July 31, 2014

Flowers for Algernon

Daniel Keyes
Harvest, 2004 (my copy is from Harvest, 2013), although copyright is from 1959
Size: Average (my TPB copy has 311 pages)
Theme: Human cognition – enhanced skills
Narrative: first-person
Main character: Charlie Gordon
Recommended minimum age: Teenager
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: YES

I picked up a copy of this book because it was on a top 100 sci-fi list that I’ve been slowly collecting for a few years. Having been written in the 1950’s, the book is a precursor in terms of human enhancement through science. It should also be analyzed as having been written that long ago, during the primordial ages of classic sci-fi. The concept behind the story is based on a group of scientists that develop a technique, mixing psychology, neurology, and biochemistry, to boost intelligence. After testing it successfully on a lab mouse named Algernon, they move on to human trials. Charlie Gordon is picked as the first human subject, due to his mental disabilities coupled with a great motivation to learn and become smarter. Everything appears to have gone successful as Charlie quickly becomes more intelligent than all those around him, to the point where he can no longer have a challenging conversation with anyone. However, as Algernon’s mental health starts declining, the question becomes whether the same will occur to Charlie…

The book is told/written in the first person by Charlie. A brilliant writing style allows us to feel how the character is changing along the plot, since in the first few pages Charlie has horrible spelling and grammar, and displays a lack of complex reasoning and a child vision of the world around him, but as the book progresses, he becomes more eloquent but also more self-assured, and later more aggressive. Sadly, once Charlie is truly explored as a character, and one is left with the feeling that much more could have been tackled from the perspectives of Alice, the two main scientists, and even some of Charlie’s acquaintances. As in many other books I have read, I would not have minded having 200 more pages to go through.

This novel is loaded with layer upon layer of significance and food for thought. Charlie’s early innocent thoughts make him a friendly person, and he is never aware of how people make fun of him or put him down. As his awareness expands, so does his perception of how cruel and dishonest human beings can be. He learns about fallacies of the society and struggles to cope with his expanding feelings. Have we not all felt like our eyes being open to a new reality? For certain, the famous sentence “Whereas once I was blind, now I see”, is not very often a positive change. Do we not realize how in our child years, there was a shroud in front of our eyes, and how everything looks different now that our eyes are “open”? And how, as honored and adults, do we look down at the “innocent” and the “different”? In a way, Charlie’s trip from mentally handicapped to highly intelligent reflects all of us, as we travel from child to adult and then to elderly person (given enough time, plagued with senility). It is the cold hard reality of it all that speaks very close to an attentive reader.

The book has no hard sci-fi, nor advanced technologies, but it’s a beautiful tale of human achievement and human relations. Maybe if children had this as required reading in school they would not be so cruel upon others. Or maybe that is just wishful thinking. Would I suggest this novel to any sci-fi reader? Most definitely yes!

*** Spoiler Alert ***
(Warning: the following text contains information that may hamper/ruin how much you enjoy the book):

Not very surprisingly, Charlie starts regressing much like Algernon towards the end of the book. He finds a flaw in the process that was used to enhance him, and continues documenting his life through his decline to a cognition level much similar to his starting point. Yet, as he feels sad over having forgotten “something” he feels he once knew, he also copes with it and moves on to embrace a simpler future.

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