Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Being a genius is so overrated

Let's go back 50 years, shall we, dear reader? Back in 1959, Daniel Keyes wrote a novella entitled Flowers for Algernon, and it won the Hugo. A few years later, in 1966, Keyes expanded the storyline of this short fiction into a full length novel. That novel won the Nebula. Reading Flowers for Algernon for the first time this year, I am completely in awe how such an SF novel could still feel relevant.

Some SF novels don't hold up too well after several years. Besides appearing charmingly dated, they don't have that edge to them anymore. Flowers for Algernon is an exception, I think. With its themes of bioethics and one's place in society, it still makes for fascinating reading. I guess one major reason for its apparent timelessness is that it doesn't have heavy SF elements -- no flying saucers, no society on the brink of intergalactic warfare, no technological breakthroughs that are hard to swallow.

The novel focuses on one Charlie Gordon, one who has a neurological condition that resulted in his having an IQ of only in the 60s. For most people, Charlie is an idiot, and they take advantage of him because of it. Things start to change when Charlie decides to take part in an experiment that aims to increase his intelligence. This experiment does sound promising, after a mouse named Algernon was given the same treatment with remarkable results.

So Charlie is given the treatment and pretty soon, his intelligence soars! First he learns to correct all the spelling and grammatical mistakes in his journal. Then he learns more than 10 languages and delves into a wide variety of disciplines, from linguistics to the hard sciences. It's only a matter of time before he even becomes more intelligent than the scientists who conducted the experiment on him.

I feel that the novel's thesis has something to do with the sum total of our experiences and our natural abilities that make us unique individuals. Charlie becomes highly intelligent, but he's awkward at having relationships with women. He also finds it difficult to make moral decisions. It's as if his intelligence has now become a burden.

Things suddenly go bad when Algernon's condition declines. If Algernon can suddenly lose all its intelligence quickly, then surely Charlie would lose his too. It is this downward turn that makes Charlie look for his parents who have abandoned him to a mental institution when he was just a child. His meeting with his father is bittersweet. And when he meets his mother and sister in his childhood home, it is heartbreaking. Yes, Flowers for Algernon, can be one of the most heartbreaking novels that you'll ever come across.

I am glad that I finally picked this book up and read it without any expectations whatsoever. While it did win both the Hugo and the Nebula, I'm not at all familiar with the SF genre for this fact to have any significant merit. I admire Keyes for having written such a timeless novel. A lot of people consider this work a classic, and I think this thinking is justified. Call it a cliche or whatever, but Flowers for Algernon is one novel that tugs at your heart.

Read this book if:
  1. You have a particular attachment to small mammals.
  2. You aren't afraid of crying buckets.
  3. You're comfortable with your IQ level.

13 comments:

Monique said...

I'm excited to read this, especially with your review. :)

Peter S. said...

Hello, Monique! I hope you like it! Well, it is the kind of book that most people love.

Jenny said...

You have me intrigued. I am going to get a copy today! Thanks

Peter S. said...

Hi, Jenny! Enjoy reading it!

Kaz said...

Oh man...I just sinned and bought a stack of new books in a sale (see my blog post I'm about to write...) and now I read your review and I want to read this... Great crit. Thanks. My budget, such as it is, will be wrecked.

Jeane said...

This is a wonderful book. I haven't read it for many years, but I remember it very clearly. I was really impressed with how the author made the writing reflect Charlie's mind- full of spelling and grammer errors when he started out, getting more sophisticated as he progressed, regressing with his condition as well. It really drew the reader into his experience- brilliant.

Peter S. said...

Hi, Kaz! Yes, I highly recommend that you read this!

Hello, Jeane! I love that style as well!

Monie Garcia said...

I read this one when I was a teen and I remember loving it and bawling my eyes out. I picked it up a few years ago to re-read it but it's still stuck in my TBR pile. I'm going to bump it up to the top now. Thanks for the reminder!!

Peter S. said...

Hi, Monie! Yes, bump it up! It's worth it!

sundersartwork said...

Good book, it was also re made in to an oscar winning film 'Charly' starring Spidermans uncle Ben. Science Fiction is often looked down upon, but i think that is more to do with our lack of respect for education. Great review, makes me want to go abck and read it.

Peter S. said...

Yes, I think this novel gets better when you reread it.

C.B. James said...

There was a discussion of this book on the BBC Radio show Good Reads that I heard via podcast last week. That and your review has me interested in reading the book again. It's been decades since I read it, but I loved it.

Peter S. said...

Hi, C.B. James! Oh, thanks for the heads up on the podcast. I'll see if it's still available.