Flowers for Algernon
When we first meet Charlie he is about to embark on a compelling but dangerous journey from retardation to genius. He has only a vague understanding of what will happen, but he is aware that knowledge and the ability to write are of paramount importance. So he doesn’t hesitate for a moment to cooperate in a radical experiment designed to increase his intelligence, the key—he hopes—to being valued as a human being and to being loved.
Daniel Keyes’s powerful and highly original story of a young man whose quest for intelligence and knowledge parallels that of Algernon (the mouse who is an earlier subject of a similar experiment) remains unique in imaginative literature. We follow Charlie Gordon’s mental, emotional, and spiritual growth. We watch with excitement as he becomes the focus of attention by the scientific world, his intellectual capacities far surpassing those of the psychologists and neurosurgeons who engineered his metamorphosis. We also follow the progress of his romance with two women, one who knew him before the experiment as well as with another, who knows him only as the attractive, bright, and sympathetic man he has become. And, finally, we hope against hope that what happens suddenly, unexpectedly, to Algernon will not happen to Charlie.
Daniel Keyes wrote little SF but is highly regarded for one classic, Flowers for Algernon. As a 1959 novella it won a Hugo award; the 1966 novel-length expansion won a Nebula. The Oscar-winning movie adaptation Charly (1968) also spawned a 1980 Broadway musical.
Following his doctor’s instructions, engaging simpleton Charlie Gordon tells his own story in a semi-literate “progris riports”. He dimly wants to better himself but with an IQ of 68 can’t even beat the laboratory mouse Algernon at maze-solving:
I dint feel bad because I watched Algernon and I lernd how to finish the amaze even if it takes me along time. I dint know mice were so smart.
Algernon is extra-clever thanks to an experimental brain operation so far tried only on animals. Charlie eagerly volunteers as the first human subject. After frustrating delays and agonies of concentration, the effects begin to show and the reports steadily improve: “Punctuation, is fun!” But getting smarter brings cruel shocks, as Charlie realises that his merry “friends” at the bakery where he sweeps the floor have all along been laughing at him, never with him. The IQ rise continues, taking him steadily past the human average to genius level and beyond, until he’s as intellectually alone as the old, foolish Charlie ever was—and now painfully aware of it. Then, ominously, the smart mouse Algernon begins to deteriorate…
A timeless tear-jerker with a terrific emotional impact, Flowers for Algernon is the 25th choice in the millennium SF Masterworks series. —David Langford