Monday, September 12, 2011

Classic Science Fiction 01: "Flowers for Algernon"

     I felt sick inside as I looked at his dull, vacuous smile, the wide, bright eyes of a child, uncertain but eager to please. They were laughing at him because he was mentally retarded.
     And I had been laughing at him too.
     Suddenly, I was furious at myself and all those who were smirking at him. I jumped up and shouted, "Shut up! Leave him alone! It's not his fault he can't understand! He can't help what he is! But for God's sake... he's still a human being!"
     The room grew silent. I cursed myself for losing control and creating a scene. I tried not to look at the boy as I paid my check and walked out without touching my food. I felt ashamed for both of us.
     --  from "Flowers for Algernon"
     What is the point of art? What is its purpose, what does it hope to accomplish? This question has been debated for centuries but for me the answer is simple: art should make you think or it should make you feel and the best art does both.

     Daniel Keyes's short story "Flowers for Algernon" ranks as not only one of the best science fiction short stories but as one of the best short stories of any genre. It's position as a classic has been ensured many times over and it has been transformed into a Nebula Award-winning novel by Keyes, a movie called Charly and even a broadway play, but it is the short story that I will discuss today.

     "Flowers for Algernon" was first published in the April 1959 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Its strength was immediately recognized and won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1960. The story reaffirms what it is that makes speculative fiction such a powerful medium: without the surgery, the science, that begins Charlie's transformation, this story would have never been told. It was the speculative element that gave Keyes the ability to access the mind of Charlie Gordon and see how he struggles first with his inferiority, then with his realizations about the people around him as he becomes smarter. This ability to ask "What if?" is, of course, the cornerstone of all fiction. But in science fiction and fantasy that "What if?" is not limited by the reality of the world that we live in. Literally any "What if?" can be explored in the realms of speculative fiction. But Keyes reminds up that no matter how fanciful, no matter how technologically advanced the worlds that speculative fictions writers create are, the heart of any story always rests with its characters.

     And Charlie Gordon is a character that elicits the readers sympathies, hopes and, ultimately, sorrows in the span of a few short pages. He also elicits these feelings in the characters he interacts with. The most touching part of the novel comes near the very end when his co-workers, Joe Carp and Frank Reilly, defend Charlie after a new man at the factory makes a crack at him. These were the same men who had made fun of Charlie for their own enjoyment. Charlie's teacher, Miss Kinnian, also sees Charlie in a new light after his transformation but in the end it is too much for her to see him return to his previous state.

     Science fiction has often explored the idea of humanity. What makes us human?  I do not mean "human" in the sense that we belong to a certain species of animal. By the broad, non-speciesist definition of humanity, an alien, a robot, or any other sentient entity can be considered human. In a story like "Flowers from Algernon" we are reminded, however, that we have a tendency to view even other humans as less than human. And the question is, if one is not simply a nationalistic thinker, not even a global thinker but a Universal thinker, where will we draw the line between "animal" and "human" when we eventually encounter other worlds? It is a question that I have explored in my own writing. Unfortunately, the track record of the human race does not leave one with much hope. But I, for one, will always turn to Joe Carp and Frank Reilly and say "Look. Here is an example that men can change. We can become more human. We can increase our awareness and develop, in the words of Albert Schweitzer, a true 'reverence for life.'" Daniel Keyes and Charlie Gordon have already shown us the way. All we need to do is read, think and feel. Is that too much to ask?

"Flowers for Algernon" (novelette version) copyright Mercury Press, Inc. 1959.

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