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SF Masterwork of the Week: Flowers for Algernon

This week’s SF Masterwork of the Week is Daniel Keyes’ 1966 Nebula Award-winning masterpiece  Flowers for Algernon, a novel expanded from the Hugo-winning story of the same name, which originally appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1959. And thanks to our good friends at SFX , we can offer you an assessment of this most powerful and moving of classics from one of modern SF’s most subtle and ingenious writers: author of the acclaimed and award-winning Ashraf Bey and Assassini trilogies, Jon Courtenay Grimwood . . .

 

A handful of the greatest SF novels were written by people who wrote nothing else. Although that should probably be almost nothing else. Walter M Miller’s stunning A Canticle for Leibowitz is one. Flowers for Algernon another. And both began as short stories that were stretched into the novels people remember.

Daniel Keyes’s story is about a mouse and a moron (we’ll get back to that description later). The novel has been banned from public libraries in the US and Canada because of its sexual content. It’s been turned into an Oscar-winning film, a West End musical starring Michael Crawford, and provided the title for a Japanese rock album. It’s also been adapted for TV, theatre and radio, translated into 27 languages, published in 30 countries and sold over five million copies. It has never been out of print.

Daniel Keyes joined the US Maritime Service at 17, became associate editor of Marvel Science Fiction at the age of 24, and published his first short fiction a year later in 1953. His most successful story, published in April 1959 in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, won the 1960 Hugo for best short story. Having been extended by the author, it won the 1966 Nebula Award for Best Novel.

So let me rephrase that first sentence. Flowers for Algernon is the story of a mouse, and a man with an IQ of 68, who doesn’t realise his friends are laughing at him. The mouse is Algernon. Charlie Gordon is the happy-go-lucky floor sweeper in a run-down bakery. Algernon is the more intelligent. As Charlie says, “I dint know mice were so smart.”

Animal-like, Charlie lives in the present, unaware of time and unable to remember his childhood beatings or understand the mockery of those around him. Because of this he is never really unhappy (his boyhood, revealed in flashbacks, makes most misery memoirs – Me, I grew up in a cupboard, drank only ditch water and wore bin liners – look like idyllic episodes from Enid Blyton). It is, obviously enough, a novel about prejudice.

If that was all, Flowers for Algernon would never have had the impact it did or become one of the great SF novels, proof that genre goes places the mainstream doesn’t dare. Because Daniel Keyes also wrote about science’s responsibility to the world and the price of being human.

Having been offered groundbreaking neurosurgery (originally carried out on Algernon the mouse), Charlie the simpleton becomes Charlie the genius. And with his rising intelligence comes a sense of time, and then a sense of mortality and doubt, sexual need and all the things that make us miserable.

As his IQ increases, Charlie outpaces his doctors; until they’re the morons, while he speed-reads scientific papers, picks holes in equations and makes discoveries only he can understand. All looks well, until Algernon begins to lose his own intelligence, falls ill and dies. Suddenly Charlie needs to save himself before it is too late.

He fails.

Saying that isn’t a spoiler. Because 1) you can’t read anything about this novel without discovering that, and 2) Flowers for Algernon only works because Daniel Keyes is ruthlessly faithful to the story and refuses to give it the happy ending everyone kept demanding.

As a short story, it was sent first to Galaxy. The editor demanded that Charlie keep his super intelligence, marry the girl and live happily ever after… Doubleday wanted to publish the novel. But Keyes gave back its advance rather than change his ending. Five publishers rejected it for similar reasons.

Other novelists have used broken English, most famously Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange, and Russell Hoban in Riddley Walker. Adam Roberts has also used spelling changes to suggest passing decades. But Daniel Keyes makes his language and spelling reflect the changes in Charlie’s intelligence.

Even now, I wonder how many editors would buy Flowers for Algernon if it hit their desks tomorrow. After all, it breaks every law in the book. Daniel Keyes uses notes and monologues, jumbles time and invents his own spelling. He writes whole chapters with no punctuation (except full stops). His ending is ruthlessly bleak.

But it’s impossible to imagine Flowers for Algernon being any different – Keyes has  created a work of lasting genius. If Algernon had lived to a ripe old age, inventing his own mazes, and Charlie had got the girl, and collected a Nobel or two on the way, no-one would remember the original story as anything more than an interesting ’50s curiosity.

 

Flowers for Algernon is available as an SF Masterworks paperback and an SF Gateway eBook. You can read about Daniel Keyes in his entry at The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

Jon Courtenay Grimwood is the author of the acclaimed Ashraf Bey trilogy of alternate history SF novels and the Assassini books, remixing Renaissance Venetian history, vampire lore and Shakespeare. His latest novel is The Last Banquet, under the name Jonathan Grimwood, which is available in hardback, and as an eBook. Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s website is www.j-cg.co.uk and you can read more about him in his entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.