First published in 1966 and no less potent fifty years later, Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon is a justifiable classic, a science fiction story which, like so many of the genre’s finest, holds a mirror up to reality and gives us a glimpse at what might be. It follows Charlie Gordon, a man with an IQ of 68 who spends his days sweeping floors in a bakery, happily ignorant of how the world sees him, until he’s chosen for an experiment to artificially enhance his intelligence. The procedure has been successfully completed once before, on a white mouse called Algernon, but Charlie is the first human test subject.
The book takes the form of Charlie’s progress reports, initially barely readable but increasingly well-written and insightful as his intelligence grows to genius level in a matter of weeks. We watch as he changes and develops, quickly eclipsing those around him and coming to understand that the men he once took to be intellectual giants are only human after all. Charlie crams a lifetime of mental growth into a fraction of the time it should take, rapidly developing intellectually but without the emotional growth that would normally come too, and he struggles to understand the reactions of those around him to his phenomenal rise. His understanding of the world and his place in it is shaken by endless revelations, but when he realises that the process which gave him his intelligence might not be permanent, he’s forced to change his outlook once again.
There’s a painful sense of inevitability running through the whole book, and a desperate hope that things will all work out ok. Through the medium of Charlie’s progress reports we see his changing moods, his starkly honest reflections on his memories of life before the procedure, and his battle to come to terms with himself. Throughout it all it’s clear that this is a book about tolerance, and what it means to be a person, as Charlie’s memories come into focus and we join him in recognising how other people see him. First he was a man-child, always the butt of cruel jokes and considered incapable of being a real person, and then a freak – a lab experiment, to be feared as much as respected. Of course he’s not capable of fully understanding either, and often reacts poorly – but who wouldn’t, when faced with a world which has never understood them?
For all its inevitability this remains a compulsive, intimate read which draws us in like voyeurs as we watch Charlie hurtle along his tragic arc. It’s still incredibly relevant today, and almost timeless except for the sometimes uncomfortable 60s vernacular which labels Charlie as having been a ‘retard’ or a ‘moron’, but which only serves to emphasise the ways in which today’s society has failed to truly move on in the last fifty years. By the time we recognise the relevance of the book’s title we’ve witnessed the making and unmaking of a human being and are left hollowed out, but at the same time better for having seen it. Emotionally it’s brutal, but the heartache is worth it.