Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Flowers for Algernon

I was re-reading Flowers for Algernon the other day, and as I did, I recalled how the first reading of it affected me, and how it defined what I thought was special about science fiction. For me the tale is one of the all time greats, in addition it holds, I think, a useful tip for aspiring writers.

Since its first publication in 1958 it has been remade in movie, TV and theatrical form many times, and through these forms it has gained admittance to the mainstream, but it is still essentially a SF story. For me an SF story includes a fictional piece of science as an implicit part of the plot. In this case the premise is that a special surgical technique has greatly increased the intelligence of Charley Gorden. We learn nothing about the procedure beyond the fact that Charley's IQ is hugely increased. This doesn't matter. For me this model serves as a working definition for Science Fiction:  IF [insert technological breakthrough here], THEN what will humans do?

In Flowers we go with Charley as incredible changes to his intellect occur. When the original short story was written such matters as IQ and other forms of pysch. testing were considered to be preminent, defining characteristics ofhumans. Yet one of the key points of the story is, as far as Charley is concerned, that despite the changes to his intelligence an essential part of him is maintained across the arc of the narrative.

Some people give the following definition of a story: Get a character in a situation, then throw rocks at him. This is the template for Flowers. At the start Charley is a moron who is the butt of the jokes of his co-workers. At the middle he is a lonely genius who has discovered that his brilliance will soon fade. At the end he has lost everything, his love and his intellect. The only thing he has managed to hold on to is the cloudy recollection that he was once smart. And throughout his journey, even at the heights when he was hailed a genius, he still maintains a connection with, and feels ashamed for his former self,

Finally Charley losses almost everything. All Charley has left is his kinship with Algernon the white lab mouse who has made the same journey. Charley knows he has a connection with Algernon, but he no longer understands why. We might be left wondering what the whole point was. Charley has gained no insight, he can't even recall how much he actually had and lost. Yet Keyes delivers the payoff through the minor characters. After everything, when Charley returns to his old job, we discover that his old tormentors, who can recall his travails better than he can, finally show some respect for him. It's a blink and you'd miss it moment, but for me it's crucial.

When Keyes submitted the story to Galaxy the editor said he loved it but please re-write it to allow Charley to hold on to his intelligence. Keyes left the story unchanged and went to another magazine. Later, after the short story version had found success Keyes developed it into a novel. Again various publishers asked for a rewrite so that Charley could retain his gifts. Keyes eventually found a publisher who would go with the story as we find it today. I don't think anyone could doubt that Keyes was correct. Had he changed it he might have made a quicker sale but he would have created just another SF potboiler, notable only for a little physcho babble about ink blot tests. Instead he created a classic that has never been out of print, sold over five million copies and, fifty years on been retold on stage and screen over a dozen times.

Sometimes, it seems, it just pays to stick to your guns.

1 comment:

  1. There's a lot in this post that I find very interesting. Right now there seems to be a major push for 'Optimisitic SF', which is not a bad thing, but I wonder if it means that dystopian SF is out of fashion. If so, then that is a bad thing, because bringing the dangers of progress to light has been one of SF's main 'jobs' since Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein.

    There's a strong leaning towards 'upbeat' endings and 'positive' stories among writers and markets at current. This is pretty odd when you think about it, because the real classics of SF are not generally upbeat or positive. 1984, Farenhiet 451, Neuromancer, 2001, Canticle for Lebowitz, Frankenstein, Anything By Philip K Dick, etc, etc, etc, are not very uplifting stories, yet there seems to be a widespread belief these days that SF needs more 'positive' stories. Why? They aren't what sold in the past?

    There's also a strong drive to go 'back', and has been for years. Working through duotrope I see quite a few markets that claim to be looking for "The kind of SF we grew up on, back when the galaxy was young, men were real men, women were real women and little blue critters from alpha-centuri were *real* little blue critters from alpha-centuri!" Indeed, 'New Space Opera' and 'Steampunk' are essentially backwards-looking forms of the genre.

    I'm impressed that Keyes had the determination to stick to his vision, and I also note that publishers/editors, who are somewhat deified by writers it seems to me, don't always know what's best. In workshops I've time and again been told by my fellow writers "Editors say this" or "Editors want that". I know what they would have advised Keyes to do. Not once have I heard anyone say "Yeah? Well what do they know?" I feel there is a lesson in here somewhere.

    What were these people who were advising the change thinking? FfA would be a complete failure if their advice had been taken. I think this is a problem of the SF market only caring about the new technologies that are on display (in this case neural enchancement) not about the story and it's deeper meaning. the fear that a 'downer' ending would drive readers away also seems to be present, but of course it is the 'downer' ending that makes this story.