Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes

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This is the fifteenth in a series of reviews of those pieces of written science fiction and fantasy which have won both the Hugo and Nebula awards. I had some reservations about including "Flowers for Algernon" in this series. It is an unusual case in that different versions of the story won different awards; the original short story, published in Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1959, won a 1960 Hugo, while the novel length expansion jointly won a 1966 Nebula. So to do it justice I would have to review two separately published versions of the story in one web page.
However it is pretty clear to me that the story must be the best known of any Hugo or Nebula winner, partly because it is on many junior high school reading lists in the United States and Canada, but also because it is quite simply of outstanding quality. I also had to acknowledge that I had personal reasons for not wanting to write about "Flowers for Algernon", which I will come to at the end, and perhaps doing this article is a kind of useful therapy. I am going to assume that you have also read "Flowers for Algernon" and there will be no attempt to conceal plot details below. If you have not read it, you should go somewhere else now.

Member of MagiCon, the 50th World Science Fiction Convention in 1992, were asked also to vote for the best of all previous Hugo winners in each of the established categories. In three of the four fiction categories the results were rather close; there was little distance in the novel category between The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Dune, and Stranger in a Strange Land; in the novelette category, "The Big Front Yard" was only just ahead of "The Bicentennial Man", "Sandkings", "Unicorn Variations" and "Blood Music"; and in the Short Story category, "I Have No Mouth and I must Scream" was a little more convincingly ahead of "Neutron Star", "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman", and "The Star".

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But in the novella category, there was a very clear winner: of 842 votes cast (the most votes cast for any category), "Flowers for Algernon" received 201 first preferences - more than the next three stories added together - 100 second preferences and 71 third preferences. (The next three stories were Anne McCaffrey's "Weyr Search", which of course was the start of her Dragonriders of Pern series; "Enemy Mine", by Barry B Longyear; and "Ill Met In Lankhmar", by Fritz Leiber.) It seems pretty likely that if the poll had been a single ballot for all works of fiction which have won Hugos, the short version of "Flowers for Algernon" would have easily beaten all comers.

The novel version is slightly less celebrated, but only slightly. SFWA members were asked to rank all Nebula winners from 1965 to 1985 in the summer of 1987, and while Ben Bova does not give awfully full details in the resulting "Best of the Nebulas" anthology, it seems a reasonable deduction that Flowers for Algernon came second or third in the novel category, definitely behind Dune and possibly behind either The Dispossessed or The Left Hand of Darkness.

The success of "Flowers for Algernon" is really due to three things: the beginning of the story, the middle and the end. To start with the beginning: "progris riport 1: martch 5, 1965. Dr. Strauss says I shud rite down what I think and evrey thing that happins to me from now on." There are not a lot of sf stories written in diary format (apart from Dracula, the vastly inferior Podkayne of Mars is the only one that occurs to me right now) but immediately one wants to find out what happins, er, happens. And the first paragraph established our narrator, 37 years old, with considerable learning difficulties, and keen to "be smart". The details of the scientific procedure are not at all clear but don't need to be; the experiment, the bakery, and the adult literacy classes, are all simply and clearly laid out.

The middle of the story includes two crucial scenes. The first of these is the moment when Charlie realises that his colleagues from the bakery have been mocking him rather than being friendly; a fact that we the readers have known for some time. It's the crucial (and cruel) demonstration that Charlie's new intelligence puts him completely out of phase with his previous life. The second is the point when Charlie realises that his new intelligence puts him far ahead of the scientists who have created it as well. In both short story and novel this is crystallised in the moment when he is astonished to learn that Professor Nemur doesn't understand Hindi. It's well done, because we the readers are unaware until then that Charlie has learnt the language in a matter of weeks, but it's perfectly credible that he has forgotten to mention this in his diary. The novel version of the story embeds this incident in the middle of the conference in Chicago episode.

But it's the end of the story that really sticks in your mind. Charlie's realisation that his new intelligence is only temporary, Algernon's death, and Charlie's subsequent regression back to the point where we first met him, all add up to perhaps the most poignant climax of any sf story, ending with one of the most memorable final sentences, "Please if you get a chance put some flowrs on Algernons grave in the bak yard." Keith Kushner comments on rasfw that in most diary-style stories, the narrator ends up dead, but singles out Flowers for Algernon as an exception; I don't think it is, though I notice that a number of the on-line reviews listed below assume that Charlie has left New York to find a new life. For me this reading best supported by the text is that Charlie has ended his diary because he still knows, at some level, that very soon he is going to die, and he is going off to find himself a quiet place where his life can end.

Some find "Flowers for Algernon" manipulative; I think that Keyes steers the right side of what is a very fine line. Some find his treatment of people with learning disabilities outdated and unrealistic. He can hardly be blamed for the first (I admit the use of the word "moron" does startle one); on the second point, of course Charlie has some rather unusual attitudes for someone with his level of disability, but I don't think it's completely off the spectrum, and in any case great novels are often about rather unusual people. Some find the novel far too slow moving and padded compared with the short story. I have a little sympathy for this viewpoint, and would probably have thinned some of the second half, but I feel that the extended portrayal of Charlie's psychosexual development does add depth (admittedly to a story which was already quite profound). In my 0-3 stars ranking system for these reviews, I am in no doubt that both versions of "Flowers for Algernon" deserve all three stars; the only question is whether I could give an exceptional fourth star to the shorter version.

I find this a particularly difficult story to write about because I have witnessed a regression including complete loss of speech in a young member of my immediate family. As a callous and callow teenager I found the story exceptionally moving; now I find it almost unbearable. (For similar reasons I find that Dan Simmons' Hyperion and Mary Doria Russell's Children of God stick in my mind but I will not rush to reread either book.) I hope that you reading this do not ever experience such an event, either first hand or in a loved one.
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