Thursday, 8 August 2013

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

An engrossing and heartbreaking book.  It's in the SF Masterworks series, but it doesn't feel like science fiction.

I already knew the plot when I went in (and, of course, I'd seen Lawnmower Man) but if anything the knowledge of how it would end made it all the more powerful.  Things unfold as they should, and there's no cheap twists.

It's a series of journal entries by Charlie, a mentally disabled man living in the US in the 60s.  He's encouraged to write down his thoughts by a team of scientists who're experimenting on his brain to make him smarter.  It starts off with childlike spelling and a limited understanding of what's going on around him.  As the process starts to work, you notice the spelling and thought processes start to improve even before Charlie does.

Eventually he becomes the smartest guy in the book - smart enough to realise the experiment is doomed and he'll end up just as he started.  Mercifully for Charlie - and the reader - the decline is more rapid.  In the meantime he gets laid, falls in love, realises that his friends have been mocking him all his life and becomes a right royal pain in the arse as he learns that mo' intelligence means mo' problems.

There are a few pitfalls this book manages to avoid.  Low IQ Charlie is a good hearted soul, but it doesn't paint him as a Noble Savage, who's worse off for having glimpsed over the horizon.  He's convincingly portrayed throughout as his intelligence ebbs and wanes.  He does learn that people aren't as nice as he always thought, but there aren't any villains here.  Also, he doesn't become an insane evil genius like in the Lawnmower Man.

I polished this off in under a day.  I can see why it's a popular book to make kids read in school, which is kind of a pity.  And yeah, I choked up at the end.  Doubly embarrasing because I was on a plane sitting next to a stranger.  Blub.

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