by Dan Peacock
“My name is Charlie Gordon I werk in Donners bakery where Mr Donner gives me 11 dollers a week and bred or cake if I want. I am 32 yeres old and next munth is my brithday.”
Daniel Keyes’ Flowers For Algernon is often cited as a classic piece of science-fiction, but there’s the feeling that branding it as “sci-fi” might turn away a lot of people that might otherwise have loved this novella. There are no spaceships, no aliens, no time-travel; just solid fiction with science at its core.
Charlie Gordon, the narrator, has an IQ of 68 when he signs up for an experimental surgical procedure to vastly increase his intelligence. His diary entries (which form the book), which are initially riddled with spelling mistakes and cloudy observations, slowly become more coherent, insightful and revelatory as his IQ climbs… and climbs. In a manner of weeks, it has almost tripled to 185.
Flowers For Algernon isn’t a book about the power of intelligence, although it’s a theme that features heavily. It’s about perspective. We see the world through the eyes of a mentally handicapped narrator; then, we see the world through the eyes of a narrator who until recently was mentally handicapped – a narrator whose eyes, so to speak, have been opened to the world. Becoming more and more perceptive, Charlie notices that his co-workers and friends have been making fun of him, laughing at him rather than along with him – and struggles to keep control as his cognitive ability rapidly overtakes his emotional age.
And when Algernon, the highly intelligent laboratory mouse that preceded Charlie in the experiments, starts behaving erratically, Charlie looks into the procedure that made him smarter and makes a disturbing discovery.
Flowers For Algernon may be science fiction, but with much more of a focus on the main character’s emotional journey than the technology surrounding his transformation. It’s a book that’s both heartwarming and heartbreaking. If you read one novella in 2014, make it this.