Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes: Science Fiction with a Big Heart

Rating: 5 stars (zero hesitation)

Category: Science fiction, Emotional

Synopsis: Algernon is no ordinary lab mouse – scientists have performed a pioneering experiment to exponentially increase his intelligence. Charlie is a man with learning difficulties working as a cleaner in a bakery. He longs for a higher IQ, believing it will make him feel more equal to those around him and is to become the experiment’s first human test subject. It opens up a world previously closed to him, but Charlie soon learns that increasing IQ is too simplistic an approach to solve the complexities of human emotions and relationships. With Algernon’s behaviour also becoming more erratic, Charlie’s future looks increasingly uncertain…

Review:

Why I Read It

I have mentioned previously on Miscellany Pages my prejudice against science fiction. Too often, I find the genre crosses a line of “weirdness” that alienates me. However, a friend at book club was so enthusiastic about Flowers for Algernon that I felt I had no other choice but to put aside my snobby sci-fi misgivings. I am so glad I did.

First Impressions

The unusual title of Flowers for Algernon immediately marks the book as something unique. I love titles that make me feel uncertain to start with but become clear and give more meaning towards the ending of the story. The unusual way in which the novel is written as a series of progress reports, from Charlie’s point of view, also created a feeling that I would enjoy the book as something fresh and new.

Writing Style

Far from the world of cold, hard science, Keyes writes in a beautiful style reminiscent of poetry and art. This is one of my favourite quotations, in which Charlie describes the experience of making love:

The universe was exploding, each particle away from the next, hurtling us into dark and lonely space, eternally tearing us away from each other – child out of the womb, friend away from friend, moving from each other, each through his own pathway toward the goal-box of solitary death. But this was the counterweight, the act of binding and holding.

Plot

The sci-fi plot is far less central to the power of this novel than the ideas is allows Keyes to explore. There are so many ethical issues surrounding the experiment to increase intelligence, and it made me consider the concept in a way I never had before.

  • Can we measure intelligence?
  • Can we even truly define it?
  • Does our society place too much value on intelligence?

Many other issues are also explored in the story, particularly through the achingly sad exploration of loneliness. Charlie is alienated in so many ways, both before and after his operation, and at times his treatment is a harrowing example of the human capacity for cruelty. This made me question whether he was happier before the experiment, when he remained blissfully unaware of this cruelty. It is moving that he learns the value of human connection at the moments when it seems most to be slipping away from him.

Daniel Keyes Quote

Predictability

Factors I normally look for in the ending of a book include how surprising or unpredictable it is. The ending of this story is neither, yet a sense of inevitability somehow enhances its power. My engagement did not waver for a moment – a testament to the allure of Keyes’ writing.

Characters

The way in which readers can only view the story through Charlie’s eyes adds to the absorbing way in which his character develops into an almost entirely different person throughout the novel. He forms very few new relationships, but those present from the beginning become irrevocably altered by his sudden spike in IQ. The complexity of these relationships, particularly between Charlie and his former teacher Alice, for me became the most enjoyable part of the story.

I use the light term ‘enjoyable’ advisedly. Flowers for Algernon is an intense, unrelenting emotional experience that made me shed genuine tears. I have never read a science fiction novel with so much heart.

Favourite quote:

But I know now there’s one thing you’ve all overlooked: intelligence and education that hasn’t been tempered by human affection isn’t worth a damn.

Read if: you want to be entranced by a science fiction novel with a big heart.

Cover image courtesy of Goodreads.


Have you read Flowers for Algernon? Is there a book that has removed your prejudice against a particular genre? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments – I would love to hear from you!

18 thoughts on “Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes: Science Fiction with a Big Heart

    1. Thank you for the comment! What you say is true and I had no intention of being derogatory towards the sci-fi genre. It has not been particular books in the past that have put me off, but rather a general (and misguided) perception of science fiction as a genre in which the far removal of the world from reality prevents it from being emotionally relatable. However, books such as Flowers for Algernon are making me realise this is far from the truth. I will definitely be exploring the sub-genre of social science fiction – I was not even aware of it previously so appreciate the suggestion!

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    1. Thank you for your comment! I agree – previously I always thought of the sci-fi genre as very distant from reality, but Flowers for Algernon is emotionally engaging for its very plausibility and closeness to reality. I did love the book and hope to read similar novels in future.

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      1. There’s a lot of that cold sci-fi (mainly authored by straight white guys in the 60s-80s!) which I tend to avoid as it just isn’t interesting – things have gotten a lot more diverse and interesting in the last several years! Might I recommend Dreamsnake by Vonda N MacIntyre? It’s ostensibly post-apocalyptic sci-fi, but really is about humanity, nature and a woman’s journey to understand her craft. It’s beautiful. Or The Long Way to A Small Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers – basic premise is space travel and aliens, but really it’s about found family and love!

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      2. Dreamsnake (1979) is wonderful and very 70s! Won the Hugo…. There are so many fascinating works by women from the decades Asha lays out… but yeah, one has to dig a tad deeper and they aren’t as popular as they should be. Anna Kavan’s Ice (1967), Joanna Russ’ We Who Are About To… (1977), Suzy McKee Charnas’ Walk to the End of the World (1974), and C. L. Moore’s Doomsday Morning (1952) are some personal favorites. My tastes are definitely on the more experimental end and all the above (other than C. L. Moore’s novel) are of the New Wave bent.

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      3. Well I will definitely have to check out Dreamsnakes now after two resounding recommendations! These should all provide me with a fantastic starting point for further exploration of science fiction – thank you! ☺️

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  1. Thank you for your review!! Ah this book though it was a required reading made me close to tears which is so rare! Loved it. 😊

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