The Observatory: “Flowers for Algernon” and Inventing the Human in Science Fiction

(Cover by Ed Emshwiller. F&SF, April 1959.)

Contains spoilers for “Flowers for Algernon,” a story that’s over half a century old and which a lot of people have read already.

Act III Scene 1 of Hamlet has what must be the most famous soliloquy in the English language, although it’s so lengthy that only teachers and trained actors can recite all of it; but that doesn’t matter because anyone who’s had at least a high school English education knows parts of it. You know the one. “To be or not to be…” We’re about knee-deep in the play at this point; there’s no going back. Hamlet has already gotten word from his ghost dad (whose presence we’re supposed to take at face value) that his uncle Claudius had indeed murdered Hamlet’s father and taken his place on the throne deliberately. This is not long before the play-within-a-play that serves as Hamlet‘s third-act climactic event. Really there should be no reason for this play to be longer than three acts, but Shakespeare is gonna keep us seated for much, much longer. As we all know, Hamlet may be the slowest avenger in the history of English fiction; he really TAKES HIS TIME.

And yet where would we be without that soliloquy? The strange part is that from a strictly plot-relevant standpoint there’s no reason for it to be in the play: Hamlet contemplates suicide and ultimately chooses to keep going. Why stop like this? Actually there are a lot of soliloquys and conversations in Hamlet that do nothing to push the plot forward, but “To be or not to be…” is the most famous example; more importantly, it offers a key to figuring out what the hell all this is about. Rereading it, I’m inclined to quote a specific passage here, which has to do with today’s topic. And why not? It’s such a wonderful bit of poetry. Get this:

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment,
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action. […]

Hamlet would avenge his father sooner if he wasn’t so burdened with conscience. The very ability to contemplate his actions, to such an extent that he struggles to act. Hamlet’s chief flaw, as we understand it, is that he dooms about half the cast by acting either too late or not at all; and when he does put his foot down it’s pretty much always for the worse. Action is the enemy. Or is it thought? You may not know this, but it’s pretty hard to convey a character’s thoughts, divorced from their actions, on the stage. Theatre is not a medium that naturally lends itself to introspection; if a character thinks about something they have to say so out loud—quite loud, for the sake of the people in the back row. Shakespeare also knew that people think basically nonstop, even if it’s about the most banal nonsense, hence why Hamlet, a famously introspective character whose every thought pours from his maw, has easily the most lines of any Shakespeare character.

Yet there’s nothing more human: the burden of conscience.

Shakespeare wrote Hamlet for the stage, but the chances of it being meant to be performed in its entirety are not high. Only the foolhardy try to perform Hamlet unabridged, with Kenneth Branagh’s film adaptation being more of a gimmick than an act of faithfulness to the text. Wow, all four exhausting hours! At the same time it’s much more digestible if read to oneself, with the ideal cast being a single performer: the reader. Even its length supports this notion that we’re supposed to wallow in Hamlet’s flawed humanity by ourselves, in our mind’s voice, which you have to admit is remarkable. Aside from being a natural-born poet, Shakespeare did something that was probably thought to be impossible for the stage, in how he explored the zones and textures of human thought. Many people wrotes plots like Shakespeare, and even better than Shakespeare (the man borrowed quite a few of his plots and even then he wasn’t an inventive plotter with his “original” stories), but the characters are something else.

Despite being first performed circa 1600, we would not see the heights of human consciousness in Hamlet even remotely reached in magazine SF in the genre’s early days. Even when John W. Campbell came along, with his preoccupation with the potential of the human mind (yadda yadda psi powers yadda yadda), there was still a conspicuous lack of writing about human thought as opposed to action. Consider this: the typical Campbellian SF story is a problem story. There’s a problem, due to technology or human error or something else, and the (it’s always human) protagonists must find a material, practical solution. A cult manifests among conveyer belt workers in Robert Heinlein’s “The Roads Must Roll” and this problem must be solved practically. Two spacefaring races meet unexpectedly in Murray Leinster’s “First Contact” and they must find a way to avoid blowing each other to smithereens. Isaac Asimov’s robot stories are largely concerned with testing the Three Laws of robotics. In Fredric Brown’s “Arena,” a human and an alien warrior must battle to death for the fate of humanity.

A common criticism of so-called Golden Age SF I’ve seen from people my age (i.e., in the 18-to-30 brackett) is that characters in these stories are almost always made of cardboard. The characters to serve a problem narrative, in which the author will demonstrate possible future tech or, more interestingly, moral dilemmas that may arise from future developments. These are stories that are fundamentally rooted in action, which is to say they exclude thought that does not contribute to propelling said action. The logical conclusion of this school of genre storytelling comes in the form of Hal Clement—who, make no mistake, is quite good at what he does. Clement characters are, at their core, totally sane, reasonable people who, if we’re given a window into their thought processes, will generally only consider problems and solutions. Probably why a lot of people bounce off Clement: his “human” characters are little more than abstractions. Not very Shakespearean!

Sure, the best of these stories are memorable and entertaining, but thre’s also not a warm human heart beating at their cores—with exceptions. Even then, with the rise of Galaxy and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in the ’50s, presenting a more liberal and humane side to SF, stories published in the magazines were still, at least without the shackles of Campbell this time, problem narratives that fed on action. You won’t exactly see the SF equivalent of a John Cheever story in Galaxy. There are examples sprinkled here and there, but we would have to wait until 1959 to witness what would, up to that point, be the single finest example of thought-driven—character-driven—science fiction, and that’s the short story version of “Flowers for Algernon,” in the April 1959 issue of F&SF. Daniel Keyes had originally written “Flowers for Algernon” for H. L. Gold over at Galaxy, but after Keyes refused to give the story a happy ending, Gold turned it down—in what has to be one of the biggest editorial mistakes in magazine SF history. Robert P. Mills of F&SF then picked it up and it won a Hugo.

There are a few stories I’ve read several times before that I refuse to cover for this site in a review, and “Flowers for Algernon” is one of them. What more can I say about it? Only that it’s one of the most perfectly crafted and emotionally resonant works of modern fiction, inside or outside of the genre, and that its lasting popularity is a testament to its humanity. I could give a couple gripes that don’t really mean anything—namely that the science-fictional aspect is clearly implausible and that our understanding of people with mental disabilities has grown considerably since the time of Keyes writing the short story; but really, I’d be wasting my time. Both the short story and novel are award winners and undying classics in the field, with the novel alone selling over 5 million copies with no sign of its star power waning; it’s even been enshrined with a Library of America edition. Most “classics” in the field don’t get this treatment.

We all know the basic “plot,” with Charlie Gordon, a mentally disabled man who consents to partake in an experiment that may revolutionize the capacity for human thought—the other test subject being the white lab mouse Algernon, who himself has become abnormally intelligent due to the treatment. Charlie’s own arc is pretty much a full circle, with him starting as a man of below-average intelligence who gradually soars to intellectual heights previously only dreamt of—only to plummet to Earth in the end when the treatment reverses itself. One man gains and then loses his immense capacity to think, and this in itself is the tragedy. The world is not in danger. No significant portion of the human race is in danger. There is no grand “problem” to be solved. Charlie tries to make good with his time but at some point he realizes there really is nothing to be done about averting his fate. All he can do is think, and ya know, try not to ruin the relationships he’s formed with some people in the meantime.

“Flowers for Algernon” (I’m using quotation marks because I’m primarily referring to the short story version) does not give us a complicated narrative; there’s a reason it works as both a short story and a 300-page novel. Stuff happens, but there is surprisingly little action. Charlie does not do a whole lot, especially in the short story version. The story’s maleability with its plot beats is intentional—as is a journal being used to frame everything. There’s nothing more personal, more given to introspection, than someone’s journal/diary, on top of the inherent intimacy of a first-person narrative. “Flowers for Algernon” would not work so well, nor would we be able to relate to Charlie so much, if it was all told with bird’s-eye-view third-person narration; we can’t afford to be that detached from what we’re reading. Charlie Gordon would not be one of the most beloved protagonists in SF history if we weren’t able to read his every written hope and dream—and nightmare. This was it: character-driven SF.

Not that Keyes has Shakespeare’s knack for the language (I’m not sure who does), but he does tap into the same source that the bard’s most rounded characters came from. It wasn’t the very first example, but “Flowers for Algernon” became a phenomenon damn near overnight in no small part because it gave genre readers something in so perfectly crystalized a form that they previously may have only found in the most psychologically adept of “literary” fiction: a human character who feels human. We get a character who is not constantly on the move, but someone who often stops and thinks about where he is and why he’s here. When Algernon dies near the end, we feel sad because Algernon is a cute little mouse who never did anything wrong, but we also empathize with Charlie and his grief—which would not hit us with such force if Charlie was a Campbellian protagonist, someone who was not burdened with conscience.

In her review of the novel (June 1966, F&SF), Judith Merril says the following, as she sums up the story’s appeal so well:

The impact of the original story rested primarily in the author’s extraordinary—perhaps unique—success in conveying an identifiable-and-identifiable-with subjective portrait of a subnormal intelligence. Charlie Gordon was a moron, and he was also a man; the reader could accept him as a fellow-human, share his fears and hopes and desperate needs. ([Theodore] Sturgeon has occasionally come close to accomplishing the same thing for me, but never so completely; offhand, I cannot think of another writer who has even come near it.)

Indeed Sturgeon was arguably the closest precursor to what Keyes tried with “Flowers for Algernon,” but, much as I also love Sturgeon, none of his characters (at least in his short fiction) are as deeply drawn as Charlie Gordon; and of course the Sturgeon who wrote “Microcosmic God” kept more in line with Campbellian logic than the Sturgeon who wrote “The Other Celia” and “A Saucer of Loneliness.” Keyes, who apparently had said all he wanted to say within the confines of science fiction, wrote very little SF following his masterpiece—not a full stop like what happened with Walter M. Miller in the wake of A Canticle for Leibowitz, but the effect was more or less the same. Keyes’s importance to the field rests on one short story and its novel expansion, but these set a new standard for SF storytelling that we’ve been taking for granted ever since. We still have big-picture extravaganzas that bet their money on a Sense of Wonder™, but these have been exceptions rather than the rule in recent years.

Now it’s hard to accept science fiction that’s anything less than human.


One response to “The Observatory: “Flowers for Algernon” and Inventing the Human in Science Fiction”

  1. I’ve read and was touched by Flowers for Algernon, probably before you were born 🤭 I didn’t know about the novel, but I think the short story was complete enough for me. Hated the film. I found Hamlet as irritating as you obviously do. I recognise and have loved reading the authors on your F and SF cover.


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