This is a guest post by Ryan Webster. He has a blog focusing on Military History, you can check it out here. He’s been reading a wide variety of fiction lately and has very kindly agreed to write up some reviews for you lovely people. Check out his review of Dominion by CJ Sansom here.
Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes, Gollancz, 224pp
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Flowers For Algernon was unlike any book I’ve ever read. It charts the progress of Charlie Gordon, a man with a severe intellectual impairment, who is the subject of a scientific and psychological experiment to boost his IQ. Charlie is a very naive but affectionate character, who enjoys his job at a bakery, but longs to be ‘smarter’. He attends an adult education facility that teaches him basic reading and writing, but his memory problems mean his learning is extremely limited.
On the other side of the experiment is the white mouse Algernon, who is able to complete races and mazes with great speed. He has undergone the same procedure as Charlie and has shown a remarkable boost in his problem solving abilities. Charlie hopes that the experiment will help him become a more educated and therefore happier person. As the book progresses, Charlie does get more intelligent – he manages to speak 20 different languages and writes scientific papers – however once Algernon displays erratic and concerning behaviour, the whole experiment and Charlie’s intellectual development are under serious threat.
There are a few reasons I loved this book. The writing style is very clever. Originally a short story, Flowers for Algernon was re-written by Keyes as a full novel in the late 1960s, yet it does not read laboured or clumsy. It is written as a series of ‘Progress Reports’ in chronological order from Charlie’s perspective. These entries start short, and are written in very bad English, which of course reflects his mental state at the start of the novel. Very quickly yet subtly the narrative develops into coherent English, so although Charlie initially cannot see a change in himself, the reader can. Secondly, the first person perspective means that you can really relate to Charlie. As his incredible memory increases, he describes flashbacks to his childhood which are very tragic and heartbreaking. Charlie is very vulnerable, and his earnest wish to become ‘smart’ is touching. Finally, the breakdown of the book into Progress Reports makes it extremely easy to read. I flew through this book, and was very disappointed when it ended. Although the conclusion is a tad predictable it was still extremely satisfying and powerfully written. Keyes’ writing is incredibly evocative and you certainly feel affected by Charlie’s journey.
Whilst not a traditional ‘Sci-Fi’ novel (there are no robots or aliens etc.) it fits loosely into the genre. Similar to alternative history novels, it portrays an imagined reality where scientific and psychological experimentation has altered the world. The book is an extremely powerful look at how science has noble ideas about improving individuals, when in reality the people involved in these experiments can have ultimately tragic consequences. A great novel written with a unique narrative structure, I definitely recommend if you’re new to Sci-Fi want to explore the genre.