Daniel Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon

“Intelligence is one of the greatest human gifts. But all too often, a search for knowledge drives out the search for love. This is something else I’ve discovered for myself very recently. I present it to you as a hypothesis: Intelligence without the ability to give and receive affection leads to moral breakdown, to neurosis, and possibly even psychosis. And I say that the mind absorbed in and involved in itself as a self-centered end, to the exclusion of human relationships, can only lead to violence and pain.” 

One day I dared to confess to one of my colleagues that I am not a very big fan of science-fiction. After explaining me that not all science-fiction is about robots and spaceships, she took it as personal challenge to prove me my ignorance in the field and the next day she brought me Daniel Keyes “Flowers for Algernon”.

It ‘s a small novel about an experiment conducted on a intellectually challenged man, with an IQ of 68, aiming to increase his intelligence. It has the form of a diary written by Charlie Gordon, the subject of the experiment, who is supposed to write something down everyday (being thus considered scientific evidence of the transformations the subject suffers after the operation).

The different chapters show the evolution of the intellect and life of Charlie Gordon. So, you have the “before” Charlie Gordon:
 “I was her bestist pupil in the Beckman School for retarted adults and I tryed the hardist becus I reely wantd to lern I wantid it more even then pepul who are smarter even then me.” “If the operashun works I’ll show that mouse I can be as smart as he is. Maybe smarter.”
Charlie discovering the joys of punctuation:
 “April 6—Today, I learned, the comma, this is, a, comma (,) a period, with, a tail, Miss Kinnian, says its, importent, because, it makes writing, better, she said, somebody, could lose, a lot, of money, if a comma, isnt in, the right, place, I got, some money, that I, saved from, my job, and what, the foundation, pays me, but not, much and, I dont see how, a comma, keeps, you from, losing it, But, she says, everybody, uses commas, so Ill, use them, too,,,, April 7—I used the comma wrong. Its punctuation…Miss Kinnian says a period is punctuation too, and there are lots of other marks to learn. She said; You, got. to-mix?them!up: She showd? me” how, to mix! them; up, and now! I can. mix (up all? kinds of punctuation— in, my. writing! There” are lots, of rules; to learn? but. Im’ get’ting them in my head: One thing? I, like: about, Dear Miss Kinnian: (thats, the way? it goes; in a business letter (if I ever go! into business?) is that, she: always; gives me’ a reason” when—I ask. She”s a gen’ius! I wish? I could be smart-like-her; Punctuation, is? fun!” 
And “after” Charlie Gordon – having acquired an intellect superior to most of humans:
“I’m “exceptional”- a democratic term used to avoid the damning labels of “gifted” and “deprived” (which used to mean “bright” and “retarded”) and as soon as “exceptional” begins to mean anything to anyone they’ll change it. The idea seems to be: use an expression as long as it doesn’t mean anything to anybody. “Exceptional” refers to both ends of the spectrum, so all my life I’ve been exceptional.” 

In the end…I will let you discover, I don’t want to spoil the pleasure. It’s a really wonderful book, interesting, thought-provoking, who raises important philosophical, social and moral questions. In a period when we try more and more to play with nature, genetics and to built a super human, this kind of book lays on the table relevant questions. Do we really want to temper with nature? What are the consequences and risks? Are we ready to accept them? Can we understand their full impact?……

At first I found the title puzzling but in the end it makes sense. And all that I can tell you about it (without spoiling anything) is this: Algernon is the name of a mouse used in the experiment and on whom the new surgical technique intended to increase intelligence was tested first successfully- the mental performance of the mouse considerably increased. Why flowers for Algernon? Well that I will let you discover for yourself…it’s really worth it.