Keyes writes a short story about the dangers of man playing God, the desire for intelligence and the gifts of human experience.

Flowers for Algernon is a science-fiction short story written by Daniel Keyes. Its narrative is about a man with an IQ of 68 recruited into a psychological experiment that aims to triple his intelligence alongside another subject: a lab mouse named Algernon. The entire book writes in first-person through "progris reports", where the spelling and syntax improve as our main character reaches genius-level intellect.

For most of Charlie's life, he's only ever wanted to be liked and respected by his peers. He's always believed deep down that if he were somehow more brilliant, he'd no longer have to deal with the snide remarks of his friends and eventually earn the love and respect of his family.

“Why am I always looking at life through a window?”

This book is a fascinating look into the motivation of becoming a learned person and how the fictional concept of such a life-changing surgery shouldn't come without consequences. Despite his growing intellect, past trauma seems to haunt our protagonist and manifest in seemingly obvious leaps in logic. Intelligence doesn't necessarily guarantee love and respect. Still, if you've lived life knowing that you're not as quick-witted as your peers, perhaps "fixing" that one aspect about yourself should entitle you to admiration instead. Right?

As our protagonist's IQ increases, his emotional life fails to catch up. Paranoia, insecurity and an urge to question everything in his life are just a few of the surprise gifts (curses) given to him as part of the deal. Friendship and relationships are one of the central themes of this story. Ego destroys the easy-going nature of his friendships. From their point of view, witnessing such a sudden change stirs insecurity. To Charlie now-smart: he saw friendly banter now as an insult, acquaintances now as potential love interests, and mentors now as rivals.

"In a few months or even weeks, you'll be a different person. When you mature intellectually, we may not be able to communicate. When you mature emotionally, you may not even want me."
"She was right in refusing to torture herself by being with me. We no longer had anything in common. Simple conversation had become strained. And all there was between us now was the embarrassed silence and unsatisfied longing in a darkened room.”

Charlie's newfound awareness is still immature in the presence of accumulated trauma. The experiment threw a new sense of identity upon him, who only previously thought themselves to be a burden. Unexplainable deep-seated guilt perpetuated by an abusive family leads to Charlie not being able to distinguish between types of love. Lust, respect and happiness. He seeks to earn it in a transactional fashion through knowledge and prove his existence.

Charlie is a symbolic vessel that holds both the human experience and god-level intelligence. This splitting and clashing of the two sides are displayed chaotically through the spiralling downfall of his personal life. At the same time, his participation in the study continues to engulf him as he, the subject, becomes the researcher. Re-shaping these relationship dynamics with those around him seems to isolate our protagonist further, and the crumbling of human connection fills him with regret.

I was continually experiencing second-hand embarrassment whenever the protagonist didn't realise the error in their ways. But I also think that's one of the fun things about this story. Trauma manifests in ways that traditional intelligence cannot detect or even begin to rationalise. Without reaching spoiler-territory, I can still tell you that experiencing Charlie's self-actualisation is worth it. I was utterly hooked. Things happen, hands are forced, and Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" becomes relevant. Charlie gets stuck at the entrance. Would you be willing to give it back if you were gifted with supreme intellect?

Photo by Zhifei Zhou / Unsplash

Final thoughts

A word of warning. Certain words in this book are pretty outdated and are considered offensive these days. Also, Keyes' female characters' motivations seem to fall flat, lack any nuance and purely serve as plot devices. Unfortunately, this isn't unique to other problematic sci-fi books written around this time. If the reader were to heed this warning, they'd stick to the original short story. Keyes' original omits these somewhat irrelevant side-plots involving certain women in Charlie's life.

Flowers for Algernon is a critique of the warped value society places on intelligence. When Keyes wrote this book, practices like brain surgery were still in their infancy. Psychologists designed experiments to hypothesise that science can improve upon intellect by tweaking brain matter. Keyes warns of the ethical issues that come with "playing God".

“And she said mabey they got no rite to make me smart because if god wantid me to be smart he would have made me born that way.”

Despite being written in such a clinical setting under a progress report format, the writing here is filled with a vulnerability that I think many of us can identify with. This book is a life-affirming piece of science fiction that celebrates what makes us human. The quest for intellect should come from a genuine place and without burden.

“But I've learned that intelligence alone doesn't mean a damned thing. Here in your university, intelligence, education, knowledge, have all become great idols. 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...Intelligence is one of the greatest human gifts. But all too often a search for knowledge drives out the search for love...Intelligence without the ability to give and receive affection leads to mental and moral breakdown, to neurosis, and possibly even psychosis.”

Psychological science fiction is one of my favourite genres in any medium and there is a reason this story is considered a classic. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in sci-fi or who knows of someone with a mental handicap. It offers a unique dive into what we consider "smart" and illustrates the human experience that no level of intellect could outrun.