Flowers For Algernon: Joanne Harris Celebrates a Science Fiction Classic

Posted on 13th July 2017 by Martha Greengrass

'Flowers for Algernon... held up a mirror to the human heart; to our lack of empathy; to our aloneness in the face of our own mortality.'

A classic interogation of the limitations of human development and the cost of striving for perfection, Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes has sold more than five million copies worldwide since it was first published in 1959. As freshly poignant and achingly relevant now as when it first appeared in print, today marks the publication of a striking new edition for the next generation of readers. To celebrate, author Joanne Harris has penned this exclusive introduction to the book for Waterstones, exploring why it deserves its place in the canon.

I first read the short story of Flowers for Algernon in an anthology of the year’s sci-fi borrowed from the library. I was fourteen: I knew nothing of Daniel Keyes, or of the success, both of the 1959 novella and of the novel of the same name. I sought out and read the novel afterwards, but it was the short version that first drew me in, taking my impressionable young mind and spinning it in a totally new direction.

Stories sometimes do that - often, more than novels.  The effect of a short story is often more immediate, given a more dramatic impact by its lack of structural complexity. And this is a particularly arresting story, all the more so because, although it was written sixty years ago, it might as easily have been published yesterday. 

As a rule, science-fiction is generally more revealing of the time in which it was written than of a possible future. Its role is to take our hopes and fears and look at them through a dark glass, projecting our expectations into a fictional context. Thus, our sci-fi has by turns reflected the exhilaration of the space race; the fear of totalitarianism; the promise of the distant stars; the hope of inclusivity; the march of global warming. But Flowers for Algernon did more than that. It held up a mirror to the human heart; to our lack of empathy; to our aloneness in the face of our own mortality; to our desperate longing for love; to the end of our innocence. These are universal themes, seen through the lens of another time, like something familiar glimpsed through a camera obscura. And when, in 1966, the story was reworked and expanded as a full-length novel, those themes were as potent and fresh as they had been the previous decade, as relevant as they are today.

The theme is a twist on Prometheus, a tale that lies at the heart of a great deal of modern sci-fi. From Homer to Mary Shelley, from Metropolis to AI, we have been fascinated by the concept of the ultimate human creation, a figure in our own image, a work that challenges that of the gods, and is therefore doomed to tragedy. Charlie Gordon is, at least metaphorically, such a work: an experiment in artificial intelligence. His IQ of only 68 makes him, not only subhuman in the eyes of those around him, but subject to exploitation, both by his “friends” at work, and by the scientists who use him as a lab-rat for their new intelligence-boosting technique. Even so, it is clear from the start that Charlie is essentially good: well-meaning, kind and hopeful; an innocent in a wicked world, unable to grasp the scope of its everyday cruelties. 

But Charlie’s essential innocence, like that of the Frankenstein monster, is all too soon corrupted. From a state of grace in which he sees nothing but kindness around him, he descends into an existential crisis, galvanized by his exponentially-growing intelligence. Like the Frankenstein monster, he moves from Adam to fallen angel, and from his new position sees the vanity, greed and impotence of those he once revered as gods. 

While Frankenstein was a story seen from the perspective of the creator, Flowers for Algernon is written entirely from Charlie’s perspective as it expands, and then contracts. The parallels between the forward-thinking Prometheus and his brother, the dull Epimetheus, are clear: poor Charlie becomes first one, galvanized by modern science, then the other, let down by human incompetence, as one-by-one his new skills desert him, including the ability to understand those he once loved, and who are now his intellectual inferiors. And Charlie’s voice is familiar: from his first, clumsy attempts at using language to the height of his genius-level articulacy, he represents the ascent of Man: our yearning for knowledge, even though that knowledge may not lead to our happiness; our quest for love; our fear of death. His story is a graph of our quest to expand the boundaries of our experience: and a warning, that in doing so, we risk leaving something essential behind. 

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to get a chance to buy a piece of original cover art for an early edition of Flowers for Algernon. It shows Algernon, the mouse, at the entrance of the maze. In Classical mythology, the maze has always been a symbol of human endeavour, though often what lies at its heart is revealed to be something monstrous. In the case of Charlie Gordon, the monster at the heart of the maze is none other than a human being, stripped of all its glamours, lost and alone and longing for some kind of human connection. 

For it is this desire to communicate that initially motivates Charlie. To him, “getting smart” is a means of connecting with other human beings, to make other people like him and to deserve their love and respect. But, as he comes to realize at the peak of his development: 

Intelligence is one of the greatest human gifts. But all too often a search for knowledge drives out the search for love.

And it is this realization that leads to Charlie’s eventual disillusionment. As his IQ rises exponentially, his ability to interact with others on any meaningful level decreases accordingly. He loses his capacity to love or even respect other people. And by losing this human connection, he moves from being a superman to being something less than human: the monster at the heart of the maze, driven insane by his isolation.

For the heart of Flowers for Algernon is not a celebration of science, or even the spirit that animates mankind’s quest for knowledge. It is a message of love over knowledge; of hopefulness over achievement; of compassion over intelligence. These, and not our intellectual and scientific achievements, are the things that make us human.  And if Charlie Gordon is at the same time Prometheus and Epimetheus, he is also the children we once were, longing for safe passage through the labyrinth of adulthood, unaware that the adults are just as lost as everyone else.

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes is published by Orion Publishing Co. and is available now.

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A heartbreaking classic of the science fiction genre, Keyes' parable of the deadly dangers of trying to alter human intelligence is an impeccably crafted novel with one of the genre's most empathetic and engrossing characters at its core.
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Joanne Harris is the author of the Whitbread-shortlisted Chocolat and many other bestselling novels. Her latest novel is the third in the Malbry sequence, Different Class. Her novel A Pocketful of Crows is due for release on the 19th October 2017 and is available for pre-order now.

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A perfect autumn and Christmas read, this combines the harshness of nature with the spookiness of a ghost story and the comfort of a great folk tale, in one beautifully told novella which is stunningly illustrated by Bonnie Hawkins.
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