Sunday, December 9, 2007

Review - "Flowers for Algernon" and "The Longest Voyage"

Ed Emshwiller 1960 Hugo Winner for Best Illustrator

Obviously the "Starship Soldier" mentioned on the cover and illustrated there was eventually retitled to Starship Troopers.

"Flowers for Algernon" by Daniel Keyes 1960 Hugo Winner for Best Short Fiction
I once read that "Flowers for Algernon" was the single most anthologized story ever written. I'm not certain if that's true, it might not be true any more even if it was true once, but it's obvious why it would be such a popular choice. The story is great; in fact once it was expanded to a novel it won a Nebula award. It's powerful and moving.

In "Flowers for Algernon" a mentally challenged man named Charlie undergoes an operation to increase his intellect. As he grows smarter he gains some harsh insight into his previous life and then just as cruelly has his new intelligence slowly stripped away.

It's a bit maudlin at times, but the strength of the story comes from it being told in Charlie's own words which change as he does. Keyes uses a journal to show the progress to the reader and the early entries are poorly written and filled with misspellings (much like your typical Internet message board). It gives the reader additional feedback beyond what is simply told.

"Flowers for Algernon" is a magnificent short story. The viewpoint used is an exceptional choice by Keyes. While I didn't care for the playing up of certain easy emotional themes the writing is strong enough to carry the whole work.

Ed Emshwiller
1961 Hugo Winner for Best Illustrator

"The Longest Voyage"
by Poul Anderson
1961 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

Unlike the previous winner "The Longest Voyage" is a much more straightforward science fiction story sticking to the usual tropes but it does put them in an unusual situation.

"The Longest Voyage" features the crew of a tall ship performing the first circumnavigation of the world, which is not Earth. On their journey they find a vaguely Polynesian style civilization which claims to have a ship that came from the stars. Using his wits the captain of this ship meets the marooned sailor who needs just a gallon of mercury to repair his ship. This can be done but there's concern on everyone's part on who will control the ship in the end and how will it be used.

Anderson's story doesn't have a really rich theme beyond the sailing and those sections read more like he watched some pirate movies before writing the story than performing research. Not that there's anything wrong with that, it just makes the sailing seem rather thin; I will take "rather thin" over "pointless slabs of exposition dropped in by the author to show how smart he is" any day.

The core conflict between the sailors, the islanders, and the space traveler is rather thin as well. We're barely introduced to it before someone decides to cut the Gordian Knot which doesn't let a lot of tension over the conflict build and didn't let me build up a lot of interest in how it was resolved.

Still despite my complaints it was a cute little story. Giving us two cultures dealing with the impact of high technology was a nice addition and the history of the age of sail gives some interest in whether or not imperialism will spread. It's not bad, it just isn't anything really special. In the end I have to come down on the side of having enjoyed it.