Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author Daniel Keyes has died at the age of 86 due to pneumonia-related complications. Keyes is best known for his short story “Flowers for Algernon,” which he published in the April 1959 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and which he later expanded into a novel that was published to much acclaim in 1966. Two years later, the book was adapted into the film Charly, which won the Academy Award. It was remade again in 2000.
Flowers for Algernon is one of those science fiction stories that helped legitimize the genre. It features a protagonist named Charlie Gordon, who works as a janitor and has an IQ of only 68. Charlie becomes part of a medical experiment to test a new surgical technique for improving intelligence. The technique has been tried on mice — namely, the mouse named Algernon — but it’s time for a human guinea pig. The surgery is a success, and Charlie’s IQ skyrockets. Charlie falls in love with a former teacher, but as his intelligence eclipses hers, their relationship becomes doomed, as do most of Charlie’s other relationships, and he turns to the bottle and other vices.
It’s a pretty classic “be careful what you wish for” scenario, and it also touches on the “ignorance is bliss” theme, as Charlie is intelligent and aware enough to know what’s happening to him and why. He’s also aware enough to realize that his intelligence is fleeting. When Algernon the mouse regresses and soon dies, Charlie knows what’s in store for him, and despite trying to pinpoint the problem with the surgery, he too regresses. Charlie’s backward slide parallels that experienced by people suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia — the worst part is that, at the beginning, Charlie knows what’s happening and what he’s losing. Sci-fi stories that delve deeply into human elements and realistically explore the consequences of developing scientific and medical procedures are among the most important and insightful literature there is, and Keyes’ book is no exception. One aspect I appreciate about both the short story and the novel is that the publishers wanted Keyes to change his ending and make it happy, and Keyes refused, even though it meant giving a publishing advance back to Doubleday.
Keyes’ own personal experiences influenced the book. His parents wanted him to be a doctor, and as he pursued a different education (writing and psychology), Keyes often wondered what would happen if one could become significantly more intelligent. This question came into focus as a plot idea when Keyes taught English to special needs students, and one of them asked if it was possible to become much smarter if he only worked hard enough. Before publishing “Flowers for Algernon,” Keyes edited Marvel Science Stories and wrote and later edited for Atlas Comics, which later became this little company called Marvel Comics.
Keyes was the author of 10 books, the last of which, The Asylum Prophecies, was published in 2009. In 2000, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America awarded Keyes the honor of Author Emeritus.