Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Review - Flowers for Algernon

Flowers for Algernon
by Daniel Keyes
Tied for 1966 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

One of the classic arguments in science fiction is if the original short story or the novel is better. There's a lot of stories that have been expanded to full length novels and a good way to start a fight in a room full of nerds is to say that one was better than the other. The original short story "Flowers for Algernon" won the Hugo award in 1960 and Keyes reworked it into this book which managed to win the Nebula.

Charlie is a mentally handicapped man who has been selected for an experiment to raise his intelligence. Through his journal entries the reader can see his developmental progress as he both becomes smarter and seeks emotional maturity. With his new viewpoint Charlie seeks to make peace with his childhood. And in this confusion the possibility that the change is temporary arises.

Flowers for Algernon is a superior novel. Charlie's story has a real punch to it thanks to the developing first person narrative which gives you a chance to see his development on multiple levels. Starting with the childish writing it builds perfectly over the course of the story. It makes the book one of the best constructed novels I have ever encountered.

It helps that Charlie is a fascinating character. He starts innocent but the fruit of the tree of knowledge changes that quickly. I never found him to be particularly likable but he was sympathetic; you could understand him despite the exotic situation. In addition Keyes manages to avoid a simplistic equating of knowledge with unhappiness that some authors use; knowledge makes Charlie unhappy but there's underlying problems. Ignorance wasn't complete bliss.

So what is the real difference between the book and the short story? Primarily the arc of short story is intellectual, the arc of the novel is emotional. The short story is about what happens and the novel is about what Charlie does about it. I think Keyes was more effective in the short story since the events contain their own drama but if someone told me that they preferred the exploration of Charlie's past and emotional development in the novel it wouldn't surprise me. Each will appeal to a different group of readers.

You'll note I had nothing negative to say about Flowers for Algernon. I can't help that since it's not just a great work of science fiction, it's one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century.
If you have never read the book then I cannot recommend it highly enough. My preferences lie with the short story but the book has its own strengths. If you're going to read one book that I recommend this is the one.