Another book from my summer reading list, and another heavy hitter, winner of Nebula and Hugo awards, a solid presence on many “Best of SF” lists (check here and here, for example; these are just the top of the pile, – if you don’t like them, pick another 😉 the internet is full of lists and Keyes’s book is on most of them). It’s a short book, mere 216 pages in my SF Masterworks edition from Gollancz, but like another recently reviewed classic, A Canticle for Leibowitz, it carries a lot of weight. Flowers for Algernon is a SF must-read and a tear-jerker, an intimate, nuanced psychological portrait of a man coming from darkness to light, as the Plato’s quote on the first page slyly suggests. But is he really?
The protagonist of the novel, Charlie Gordon, is a 32-year old with IQ of 68. And yes, the age is important – when the book begins, Charlie’s nearing his 33th birthday. He works at a bakery, sweeping floors, cleaning toilets, doing all the simple, menial jobs a person with sub-normal level of IQ can do. What sets him apart from others like him is his drive to knowledge, his willingness to learn. And he gets his chance to become smarter when the local university starts looking for a human subject for their experiment in the area of neurosurgical augmentation of brain functions. The experimental therapy had been successfully tried on animal subjects before and the results were promising enough to induce the scientists into going to the human-testing phase. Charlie becomes the first person to undergo this kind of brain treatment and he’s obligated to document the changes in him in the form of written “Progress Reports”. Flowers for Algernon are constructed as Charlie’s diary, a complete set of the intimate, sometimes painfully honest reports he had been writing throughout the experiment. We witness the changes, minute at first and then accelerating with breathtaking speed, seeing his transformation from a boy in man’s body to an adolescent genius blowing up all possible IQ scales, to a grown, mature man accepting the world as it is. But the changes don’t stop there.