Book Review: Flowers for Algernon

Book Name: Flowers For Algernon
Author: Daniel Keyes
First Published: 1966
Hugo Award for best short story (1960)
Joint Nebula Award (1966)
Nominated for Hugo Award as novel (1967) Lost to Heinlein’s Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Daniel Keyes first job as a teenager was to join the U.S. Maritime Service as a ship purser. When he left the sea, he continued his schooling and gained a B.A. in psychology and then a Master’s in English and American Literature from Brooklyn College in New York. Keyes became a teacher for the New York City public school system and taught English and creative writing. Later he would go on to teach creative writing at Wayne State University in Ohio and become a professor emeritus there in 2000. His original university, Brooklyn College, also awarded him its “Distinguished Alumnus Medal of Honor.” Keyes was elected the SFWA Author Emeritus in 2000 for making a significant contribution to science fiction and fantasy, primarily as a result of Flowers for Algernon.

Keyes died in his home in 2014 at the age of 86. It was due to complications from pneumonia. He is survived by his two daughters, Leslie and Hillary, his wife Aurea Georgina Vazquez having died the year before.

His writing career began a few weeks after his graduation from Brooklyn College. Keyes was hired by Magazine Management, a publishing company owned by Martin Goodman. Since he had some experience with science fiction, he eventually became the editor of the pulp magazine Marvel Science Stories, a precursor of the now famous Marvel Comics. When Goodman discontinued the pulps in favor of paperback novels and men’s adventure magazines, Keyes was moved to Atlas to become an associate editor under Stan Lee. In 1952, Keyes was one of several staff writers (officially known as editors) who wrote for the comics. He had two science fiction stories published in Journey into Unknown Worlds along with art from Basil Wolverton.

Flowers for Algernon began as a story proposal for the comics, entitled Brainstorm, but Keyes felt that this story had more depth and was more literary based than comic based. Instead, he wrote it as a full short story and it was published in 1959 by The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. He won the Hugo Award for this short story. In a few years, he would expand the short into his first full-length novel to publish in 1966. The novel has since been adapted into several movies, including the famous version “Charly” that gave Cliff Robertson the academy award for best actor. The novel was nominated for a Hugo and it won a Nebula Award.

Keyes published additional books: The Fifth Sally, The Minds of Billy Milligan, The Touch, Unveiling Claudia, and the memoir Algernon, Charlie, and I: A Writer’s Journey.

Anyone who has common sense will remember that the bewilderments of the eye are of two kinds, and arise from two causes, either from coming out of the light or from going into the light, which is true of the mind’s eye, quite as much as of the bodily eye.
— Plato, The Republic

Charlie Gordon, a thirty-something man, suffers from phenylketonuria and has a modest IQ of 68. He works as a janitor at a bakery which allows him enough money to afford an apartment and stay out of the state institution. Charlie has ambition. He takes courses to learn to read and write at the Beekman College Center for Retarded Adults. His teacher is young and attractive Alice Kinnian.

Two medical researchers look for a human subject to test a new surgical technique to raise biological intelligence. The first experiments performed on a mouse were successful enough that they felt it was time to take the next step in their studies with a human. Based on a recommendation from Miss Kinnian, Charlie is chosen to be that test subject based on his motivation to improve his condition.

Charlie’s operation is a success, much like that of the mouse Algernon. His IQ soars to 185 and his dream of understanding the world around him as a normal human becomes a reality. As the months pass, life changes dramatically for Charlie. His relationships take on new meaning as he realizes the guys at the bakery “liked” him because he was a butt for their jokes. Now they fear him and demand that he be fired from his job. The scientists who performed the surgery think of him as another test subject, more a mouse than a human. Charlie confronts them with anger at a cocktail party. He also begins a romance with Alice Kinnian, but due to lack of intimacy with her, he rebels and starts a purely physical relationship with another woman, Fay.

When not dousing his soul with alcohol, Charlie continues his mentor’s research. This includes observations of the mouse Algernon, who he keeps at his apartment much like a pet. He discovers a flaw in the scientist’s research. When Algernon begins to behave in an erratic manner, losing his intelligence and then dies, Charlie realizes that he may suffer the same fate as the mouse.

Charlie attempts to mend his broken relationships with his parents and sister. He discovers that his mother suffers from dementia and his sister Norma is caring for her. Norma had hated Charlie as they were growing up, but now has new compassion for him. She asks Charlie to remain with her and their mother, but Charlie declines. Instead, he offers money to help with their mother’s care.

The process inverts and Charlie begins the decline back to a man of special needs. Fay becomes afraid of Charlie’s new condition and leaves him even as Alice returns. But will Charlie be able to accept Alice Kinnian into his life now that he is no longer a lauded genius?

Flowers for Algernon Book Cover.jpgLike many school children, Flowers for Algernon was required reading in my high school English class. It is a powerful book that left a lasting impression on me. I was made aware that science fiction did not need to be “pulp” to be part of the genre. There is room for sci-fi to be literary and comment on the human condition.

The novel has gone on to sell over 5 million copies worldwide. It has inspired many television and movie adaptations, the most famous of which is Charly starring Cliff Robertson who won an Oscar for the title role. It has become a story that is now a part of the pop-culture and has been included in many high school curriculum plans.

Yet, there is still controversy surrounding the novel. Some critics of the book find it to be sexually explicit and irreligious. Consequently, the book is occasionally removed from the shelves of schools and put onto “banned book” lists.

I view the book as a statement of how the physically and mentally challenged are viewed in the world. I am proud how far their treatment and place in society has come. There was a time not all that long ago when such children and adults were locked away in institutions or treated with derision when kept with their families. Today, I feel that much of this stigma has been removed and that people are treated with more dignity and understanding.

And what of the idea of augmenting human intelligence that plays a pivotal role in the novel? When Daniel Keyes was asked when he thought such a process might come to pass, his reply was “Perhaps in 30 years.” Science fiction may very well become science fact in our lifetime.

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12 thoughts on “Book Review: Flowers for Algernon”

  1. I’ve read the story, which I really like, but never the book. From what you described there are interesting differences between the two, though the main theme stated the same.

  2. I read the full-length as a teen and of course, saw the movie but haven’t read it as a short story. It would be interesting to to do so and see the differences. This is still one of my all-time favorite reads, and heart-rending. 🙂

  3. As far as science fiction becoming science fact, Professor Joe Tsien has made a strain of transgenic mice that are similar to Algernon in a number of ways: http://www.nytimes.com/1999/09/07/science/scientist-at-work-joe-z-tsien-of-smart-mice-and-an-even-smarter-man.html?pagewanted=all

    In Keyes NYT obituary, it says that Keyes contacted Dr. Tsien after he read about these mice, and it was Dr. Tsien who said he thought the technology might be applicable to human beings “in 30 years.” That was in 1999. So we only have 13 more years to go . . .

      1. Cliff Robertson’s version is outstanding, but there have been around 9 or 10 movies of the book made…not to mention many television episode in series that used the theme with a variation of the title. I am astonished by this story’s popularity. It hit a real nerve for our generation and our children’s.

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