Young People Read Old SFF

Flowers for Algernon

Daniel Keyes

My hit rate for this series so far has been... somewhat lower than I hoped. It’s not that I am going out of my way to find older SF stories that do not consistently appeal to younger people; it is just that I turn out to have a remarkable talent for finding older SF stories that do not consistently appeal to younger people

Perhaps the solution would be to look for stories with proven broader appeal. What better choice than Daniel Keyes’ Hugo winning “Flowers for Algernon”? Although it was first published in an unimpeachably genre outlet, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction back in 1959, its popularity was not limited to science fiction fans. To quote Wikipedia:

Flowers for Algernon has been adapted many times for different media including stage, screen and radio. These adaptations include:

Stage and radio adaptations have also been produced in France (1982), Ireland (1983), Australia (1984), Poland (1985), Japan (1987, 1990), and Czechoslovakia (1988).

The 1966 novel-length expansion is frequently banned, the mark of quality popular fiction: people only ban things of which they are actually aware.

While I can think of obvious reasons why this would appeal to older people—Charlie’s arc is essentially the same war between development and entropy we all eventually lose, amplified and accelerated—I know (because I first encountered it as a thirteen-year-old) that it can appeal to teens as well. Surely this will be the story that bridges the gap between generations?

The short story may be found in The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction: 60th Anniversary Anthology. Escape Pod’s audio adaptation may be found here. The novel-length expansion is available here.


I liked this story. The short progress reports got a little tiresome, but the longer and better spelled sections in the middle kept it from wearing. The increasing eloquence through the first half, then the descent back to misspelled scrawl were well executed. I recognize the authorial skill it takes to smoothly transition through from barely literate up to postgraduate and back.

It was a very sad story throughout. First when Charles learns that everyone is laughing at him, then when he discovers that he is going to revert to possibly a worse state than where he started. Personally, cognitive decline is one of my greatest fears and I can't decide if knowing that it was happening would be better or worse.

I like that the story doesn't have the anti-intellectual spin that most of the homages I've seen have. In episodes and stories based on this, the moral is often that being dumb and happy is better than being smart and lonely. In this story Charles wants to stay intelligent. It's something I agree with.

Putting the story of Charles aside, I'm pretty sure the surgical procedure in the story would be used regardless of the consequences. If someone like Charles can write a groundbreaking scientific paper in the time he has with increased intelligence, imagine what someone else could do with it (assuming the procedure works as advertised and gives a straight multiplier to intelligence.) People in academia use dodgier means for less dramatic results now.

Miss Kinnian is not very fleshed out as a character, but in this story nobody but Charles is really given much characterization.

All in all, I see why this is considered a foundational work of science fiction, and it deserves the recognition.

—Jamie

“I hate this story already” I complained after scanning over the first page for about 2 seconds. “Why? It doesn't make fun of people with a developmental disability, it's really good,” my partner said. I explained that I was annoyed with the progress report format of the story, and the intentional spelling mistakes. My partner urged me to give the story a chance. “I will,” I said. “I have to.” “For James.”

The verdict? We've read stories full of theft, death, apocalypse, planets taken over by robots, and infanticide, but "Flowers for Algernon" was by far the most depressing story we've read. For the same of my mental well-being, I never want to think about "Flowers for Algernon" again.

—Lisa

I read the novel in high school for fun in Grade 9 or 10. It was on one of those recommended reading lists along with Stargirl and similar coming-of-age stories. Because of that, I’ve always thought of Flowers for Algernon as YA.

Charlie’s initial progress reminds me a lot of growing up. When you’re young and don’t understand things, adults make fun of you. When you get older, you realize that being an adult doesn’t mean being smart.

What really stands out is that intellectual ability is no stand-in for social ability. The factory workers are dim compared to most and they like to feel superior by making fun of Charlie. The testers treat Charlie clinically, like an experiment. The scientists have their own personal motivations, and Charlie doubts they care for his well-being. Everyone’s flaws are exposed, except for Miss Kinnian. Charlie claims to be in love with her. I say claim Miss Kinnian is more like a motherly figure and steadfast friend. To be fair, she’s the only one trained in communicating with exceptional and extreme people.

All this to say that the story highlights that everyone is imperfect because everyone deviates from the norm.

From an SF perspective, this story examines the study of human psychology. The human brain/mind is an extremely complex thing. Frequently, we hear that it may be too complex to fully understand. In other SF, medical science can cure any ill except for fix a broken brain. The meta self-examination of our brains examining our brains will likely remain a topic of fascination for a while yet.

Has this story aged well? The vocabulary seems a bit dated here and there. They call Charlie a ‘card’. Charlie lives at a boarding-house. Overall, though, nothing egregious.

Women: they’re two-dimensional—hey, that’s better than the one-dimensional characters of other stories so far! The female characters are fleshed out as much as most of the other characters. They have their own flaws and motivations, and they have indications of a wider life outside of Charlie’s perspective.

Conclusion: I still like this pretty well. In fact, I recently recommended this to a friend looking for short story suggestions. Not what I would expect to find under SF.

—Mel

This is the first time in this series of reviews where I read the story before it was assigned. I read the novel version of the story when I was in grade 12. It wasn’t assigned reading, but it had been mentioned in English class, and I got it from the library out of curiosity. So I was already familiar with the outline of the story, even though I didn’t remember all the details.

I definitely liked the story better this time than I did when I read the novel. I’m not sure if that’s because I’m 10 years older or if it’s because of the differences between the two version of the story. Even though I enjoyed it more this time, I still don’t feel like I know how to react to this story.

I feel like the author has a definite point in writing this, that there’s a message I’m supposed to be taking away from the story, but I have no idea what it is. I can’t tell if it’s supposed to be warning us away from attempting to modify humans, or if it’s supposed to be encouraging.

I do like the setup of having the story in the form of progress reports. The writing style changes between entries are a good way to indicate Charlie’s improvement and deterioration, and helps me connect with his character more than I might have otherwise.

I do have an issue with the idea of a single surgery creating such dramatic, if temporary, results. However, since the story is much more focused on the implications of this on Charlie and the people around him than in trying to justify the science, I’m willing to go with it.

I’m glad I read this story again, since I enjoyed it much more this time. It’s nice to get a story focusing on a character and how they relate to the world around them, as opposed to one that’s focusing on justifying the extremely outdated science.

—Mikayla

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