Flowers for Algernon

“It’s easy to have friends if you let people laugh at you.”

Daniel Keyes

Flowers for Algernon is probably as close as modern SF gets to a classic. It’s been hovering round the edges of my radar for a while now, the kind of thing I always look at in bookshops before I get distracted by something newer or shinier or more steampunk. Anyway, I finally read it when the Circumlocutor gave me a copy for my birthday (it’s not actually my birthday for another two days yet. I regret nothing.), and…

…well, I don’t know quite what I think about it.

It’s the story of Charlie Gordon, a bakery floor-sweeper with an IQ of 68, unable to read or write but anxious to learn, who’s subjected to an experimental procedure which makes him, not to put too fine a point on it, a genius. And, of course, geniosity is not all rainbows and kittens. Imagine Frankenstein by way of Of Mice and Men and you’ve got the general idea. Objectively speaking, it’s a good book, and an important one, too, running the gamut of Big Themes from death through love to loneliness and the role of science and the importance of empathy. It’s all there.

On paper, it should have had me bawling. The last few pages are, indeed, very sad. Keyes employs an effective if fairly obvious device whereby the language and orthography his POV character, Charlie himself, uses improves together with Charlie’s intelligence. And IQ-68 Charlie is endearingly sad, occasionally heartbreakingly so.

But. It wasn’t what I was expecting. I know all these things objectively. I can see that it’s a sad book. I can see that it’s an important one that People Should Read. But subjectively, I found it all a bit…grey. Possibly this is the influence of the cover, which is actually quite depressing. Possibly, also, because I already knew the ending (it’s the kind of book for which it is difficult to remain unspoiled), the eventual emotional denouement lost some of its punch. Possibly it’s just that Charlie is an extremely limited narrator: even when he’s a genius he tends to concentrate on himself rather than the world around him, which makes the novel quite claustrophobic, hemmed in, almost. Of course, this may be the point, and your personal mileage may vary according to how psychological you like your narratives. But, for me, Frankenstein has yet to be beaten as the Science-Gone-Wrong tale extraordinaire.

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