Monday, November 9, 2009

1966 Nebula Winner (tie) – FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON by Daniel Keyes

The Hugo awards have only had two ties for best novel; the Nebula awards have only had one. Somehow, both major science fiction awards managed to declare a tie in 1966, and, in part because of the different schedules, there are no overlaps. This is the only year where I have four separate novels to talk about, but they are all very different.

Daniel Keyes' Flowers for Algernon tells the story of Charles Gordon, a mentally disabled man who participates in an experiment to radically increase his intelligence quotient. In just a few months he goes from cleaning the bathrooms at a bakery to becoming an intellectual juggernaut in several different fields. Eventually, he’s looking down on the pathbreaking team of psychologists and neurologists that developed his surgery. Meanwhile, Algernon, the lab-mouse who first received the experimental intelligence-increasing treatment, begins to suffer the effects of a deteriorating mind after only a few months' time.

The tragedy is that Charlie’s main motivation in volunteering for the experiment is that he believes he’ll be less lonely when he can interact with others as intellectual equals, but when he surpasses everyone, he’s every bit as alienated as before.

This novel is free from most sci-fi concepts. There’s a simple, fairly grounded, idea here that exists mostly so that Keyes can explore questions about everyday existence. It is a nice change of pace, and one thing I like about science fiction is that it can incorporate so many types of literature and examine so many different questions.

In the end, though, I wasn’t entirely satisfied by Flowers for Algernon. Keyes dances on the edge of sentimentality on one side with Charlie’s tragic story, while he flirts with the edge of cynicism when describing the world that so harshly rejects both the good-hearted and hyper-intelligent versions of Charlie. His depiction of scientists is particularly rough, and I'm starting to think that a lot of sf writers had bad experiences with their science professors at some point in school. As an admirer of the scientific method and scientists in general, this stuff gets on my nerves pretty quickly.

Also, Keyes has chosen to present the novel as a series of reports written by Charlie over the course of the experiments. The novel begins with little punctuation, a simple vocabulary and frequent misspellings. Charlie’s writing then improves, at first subtly but then quite dramatically. It’s a vivid way to reinforce the change in the protagonist and, I’d imagine, a difficult trick for the author. However, Keyes was not the first or last author to imitate the mentally disabled, and I didn’t find his portrayal as real or poetic as Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury or Hadden’s more recent The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.

On the whole, Flowers for Algernon is highly readable, though I found it paradoxically too cynical at times and too sentimental at others. Nebula awarded this and Babel-17 over The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (see next post), and I can’t say I agree with the decision, though I can imagine why the writers might pick a pair of novels that play with language over Heinlein’s workmanlike and effortless prose. All three books were nominated for both awards though, and an earlier, shorter version won the 1960 Hugo for best short story (a version which I think I might have preferred).

Grade: A-

1 comment:

  1. I remember reading this in high school, and it inspired an Eric Wolfe story I never got around to writing.

    I should reread it, though I'm sure it won't be quite the same.