galacticjourney: (Default)
[personal profile] galacticjourney

The April 1959 Fantasy & Science Fiction opens with a bang. The lead novella, Flowers for Algernon, is destined to go down as a classic, I'm sure.

But first, a quick detour to Asimov's column for the week. The old polymath (older than me--I don't turn 40 until tomorrow!) has been on a gloom kick lately. First it was melting ice caps. Now, he points out that the limiting factor to the density of life on Earth is the limited quantity of terrestrial phosphorous. Sure, there are lots of chemicals that are vital to life, but phosphorous is the one with the greatest imbalance between its concentration in living things and its abundance in nature.

Basically, living things have used up all the phosphorous, and if we want any more, we have to get it from the dead. In the ocean, this cycle is maintained by currents that scoop up dead creatures from the bottom and bring them to closer to the surface. On land, however, our rivers pour thousands of tons of soil into the ocean every year, and it comes back much more slowly than it leaves. COULD THIS SPELL DOOM FOR LIFE ON EARTH?

I suspect not. I am willing to wager that there is a nice equilibrium going on that we just haven't discovered yet, much like the one that regulates the ocean's salinity, sadly for those who wished to use the ocean's salinity as a yardstick to the age of the Earth.

But back to Flowers. Its writer is Daniel Keyes, who I know slightly from his work for Atlas Comics and as editor of the long defunct pulp, Marvel Science Stories. It follows the life of high-functioning moron Charlie Gordon, who wishes to become smarter. Diligent and good-natured, he is selected for a radical brain surgery that, if successful (as it had been for the eponymously named lab mouse, Algernon) will treble his I.Q.

The story is written in the style of a journal kept by Charlie. We get to see him progress from a barely functional human being to the highest level of genius--and then back down again. It turns out that the effect of the process lasts only a few weeks, barely enough time for Charlie to taste of brilliance before sinking to his former state.

What really makes this novella is the writing. Keyes really captures the phases of Charlie's transformation. At first, Charlie is a simple person. Not childlike, which would have been, perhaps, easier to pull off. Just stupid, barely managing to write due to months of prior effort. Charlie then becomes a genius, and that is when childishness enters the style, because Charlie is really a newborn at that point. He spends a lonely several weeks in virtual isolation, unable to communicate, as those he once found unspeakably brilliant become universally less gifted than he. This part resonated with me, a fairly bright person (though by no means a genius). I remember in 4th Grade, a teacher once chastised me saying, "you think you are so smart--how would you like it if everyone was as smart as you?" I replied, earnestly, "I'd love it! Then I'd have people to talk to!"

The poignancy of the story as Charlie declines and nearly dies is tear-jerking, but what really affected me was Charlie's condition at the end of the tale. He may have still have an I.Q. of 68, but now he has the memory of being a genius. He is aware of his former place in society--a laughing-stock. Now Charlie burns to accomplish something, to recover, by the dint of his own effort, even the barest fraction of what he has lost.

And thus, we're left with hard questions: Is it better to have been smart and lost it than never to have been smart at all? Is ignorance bliss?

What do you think?

(Confused? Click here for an explanation as to what's really going on)

Date: 2014-02-21 02:20 am (UTC)
laurose8: (Shiveria)
From: [personal profile] laurose8
I think for some people yes, for some no. Charlie does give the closest he can to informed consent before the operation, and after it he says he was glad he had it, for his own sake as well as science's. If someone offered me a brief trip into a wider world, I'd take it too.

The hardest part for Charlie is learning his friends betray him, and he is wise enough to forgive them and heal. In fact, Charlie seems to have wisdom, if not a high IQ, right to the end.

Flowers for Algernon

Date: 2014-02-21 04:21 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Having worked in nursing homes and witnessed people struggling with significant loss of cognition I understand how hard it is for people to have the sense of being able to think clearly and to loose it. Wisdom and strength are another matter. Also common sense. These are things that you can learn or acquire no matter what your IQ is. However some people never do. Mom

Date: 2014-02-21 08:12 am (UTC)
solarbird: (dara)
From: [personal profile] solarbird
I haven't been much familar with Daniel Keyes before this issue - and not at all, really, with Marvel Science Stories. I've seen a back issue somewhere at a friend's house from... '51 or so? When I was working as a translator in Japan.

I do have some memory of a similarly-titled pulp from when I was a child... but, well, there have been so many come and gone since then, and I'm will off-topic now!

But. Yes. Daniel Keyes. New to me, and right out the gate with a story that I can only describe as both brilliant and shattering. Phenominal work. Where has this man been hiding, and please, sir, when is your next story coming out?

I agree with Laurose's thoughts about Charlie's essential wisdom, as well. I'm glad he was able to keep that - losing that would've been beyond cruel to sadism, whereas this is just profoundly moving tragedy. I can't quite decide whether it's in the classical sense.

My grandfather, who lives up in Mill Creek - he's closing in on 80, and... slowing down. This story makes me worry about him. Oh, he's fine - he'll certainly be the first to insist upon that; he's just starting to be a bit... forgetful.

I'm just glad he's got neighbours and lives in a small town and isn't up in the mountains logging somewhere like he used to be back before I was born.

I... guess this story shook me a little more than even I realised. I can't even write a coherent letter! Well done, Mr. Keyes, indeed.

ps: I guess to some degree this answers your question: is it better to have been smart and then to lose acuity or never be smart at all is kind of moot. In the end, we just about all do. The only question is only to what degree.
Edited Date: 2014-02-21 08:15 am (UTC)

Date: 2014-02-21 06:36 pm (UTC)
laurose8: (Shiveria)
From: [personal profile] laurose8
Thank you indeed for pointing that out. My very best wishes for your grandfather.

(I believe Mr Keyes did write a bit more, but this was definitely his best.)

Date: 2014-02-25 05:31 am (UTC)
glymr: (Default)
From: [personal profile] glymr
I think Laurose's comment makes a good point - would we do the same, were we offered the chance? If aliens came and gave us the option to understand the workings of the world and science far beyond our current understanding, would we take it? I think most of us would, even if we knew it would be temporary, which it seems like Charlie didn't. Even if we didn't retain the knowledge or understanding, the hope that something would come of it would drive us. And as painful as it would be to lose it, the memory of having had it would itself be incredible, I would think.

Date: 2014-03-06 06:07 pm (UTC)
glymr: (Default)
From: [personal profile] glymr
Having finally had a chance to read the story, I found it deeply affecting. Charlie's pain as he watches himself degenerate, and his plea, "please don't take it all away", are so poignant.

It's very clear that he becomes a different person in the course of the story, even though he has regressed mentally back to his starting point by the end. In particular, the emotional revelations stay with him. The fact that he says, with a certain amount of irony and self-deprecation, "I pulled a Charlie Gordon," when he accidentally goes back to class, shows that he now understands exactly what that term means.

I found his decision to leave particularly interesting. Rather than stay at the factory where people are now kind to him but pity him, he chooses to go somewhere else where people don't know him. And he says that he'll always have lots of friends if he lets people laugh at him.

That last sounds sad, but in context, I think it shows that Charlie has taken control of his own life. He says that he "lets" people laugh at him. He knows that people are laughing at him, and he is choosing to accept that, and to laugh "with" them. That's a far cry from the Charlie at the beginning.

I like, too, his struggles to communicate when he is smarter than everyone around him. More than once in my life I have been told that people don't like me because I "show off" by using big words. Every time it has left me stunned and speechless. Which words? I've never deliberately used a longer word in order to sound smart. At some point I realized that I could either consciously dumb down my speech or I could be myself and to heck with anyone that thought I was 'showing off'. Charlie's position is particularly difficult, of course - a person born a genius has a chance to learn certain social cues that Charlie never did, and it shows.

Anyway, much food for thought in this novella. Thank you for sharing your review of it.

"Flowers for Algernon"

Date: 2014-08-04 12:55 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
The finest science fiction story I have ever read.

Victoria Silverwolf


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