Apr 14 2010

Flowers for Algernon

Tonight, I finished Daniel Keyes‘ 1966 novel “Flowers for Algernon“. And… I’m not feeling particularly snarky at the moment. I wonder why? This is one of the few epistolary styled stories that I’ve read that hasn’t annoyed me. It’s crucial to the storytelling. The book consists of seventeen Progress Reports, written by the main character Charlie Gordon, over the course of a science experiment to make him smarter. This is no small feat since Charlie begins the book with an IQ of 68. On the surface, this is a borderline science-fiction story about modifying the human brain. Beneath the surface (snorkel depth at most) the book explores mental retardation (or whatever they call it these days) and how we treat and deal with these people. The book is sobering to say the least.

From the beginning of the book, the eventual outcome is handed to the reader in an open box. The story doesn’t succeed or fail on the reader’s ability to predict the outcome. From the start, it is a foregone conclusion that this can’t end well. Charlie’s predecessor, a lab mouse named Algernon, has undergone the same surgery and improved remarkably. Encouraged by these preliminary results, the scientists rush to find a suitable human subject for a one man clinical trial. Charlie’s intellectual ascent is temporary. The only questions are how fast and how high will Charlie’s intelligence climb before his inevitable descent. Does that ruin the story? It didn’t for me. I knew that much before picking up the book. What I didn’t expect was a science fiction story that delved into the thoughts, emotions, and prejudices of people more than the technology. This is actually the best possible use of science fiction and fantasy stories. Too much concentration on technology (or magic) is usually a sign that the story is lacking. “Flowers for Algernon” doesn’t fall into that rut. I’m also pleased that Keyes didn’t submit to editors’ suggestions that he mainstream the ending. At one point the author even returned a publisher’s advance rather than debase his work, preferring instead to wait until a publisher would accept the story as-is.

It’s hard to believe there are still people out there who support the banning of this book in schools (well, Texas I can understand). In some respects, I feel the same way about Flowers that I did about “Catcher in the Rye” (1951) the first time I read it; I wished I’d read it sooner. There’s a lot of things to take from this book, things that you may find yourself thinking about long after you’ve transplanted the bookmark into the next item on the shelf. That’s a very good thing…

“Im out of the hospital but not back at werk yet. Nothing is happining. I had lots of tests and differint kinds of races with Algernon. I hate that mouse.”

4.5 out of 5


Apr 9 2010

The Hunger Games

Today, I finished a piece of juvenile dark science-fiction. There should be more of this stuff. One of my favorite books growing-up was John Christopher’s “The White Mountains” (1967). While there’s no “capping” going on in Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” (2008), there is plenty to like. The story takes place in a dystopian North America where children are selected by annual lottery to represent their colonies in gladiatorial combat. When the book begins, the Hunger Games are in their seventy-fourth year and it is time to choose new tributes. Each of the twelve districts randomly choose two kids (male and female) to represent them in the Games. Of the twenty-four total tributes, only one can be victorious. The victor is rewarded with lifelong celebrity and a years worth of food for his/her home district. All the runner-ups… Well, there are no runner-ups. The only way to win is if all your opponents die.

While the Arena is the hub around which the entire story turns, it is also the one element with which I have the most problem. I’m trying to think of a historical precedent for a totalitarian government with such power and influence, that its citizens willingly offer-up their children (ages 12 to 18) to certain (95.8%) death. Collins has cited the legend of Theseus as a precedent, wherein the government of Athens sent young men and women to sate the Minotaur of Crete. The book however offers the lottery (created by the Treaty of Treason) as a means for the Panem government to annually reassert its power over the districts. Not only are 23 children killed every year to remind the citizens of the government’s power, but their deaths are must-see tv. If you can accept that explanation, the rest of the book is much more palatable.

I learned about this book in a Fark thread where readers were listing the saddest books they’d ever read. Having now read it, I’m not sure “The Hunger Games” qualifies to stand alongside some of the other titles mentioned. There is a very sad section in the middle of the book *sniff* where one child in particular dies (did I ruin it?!!!), but other than that it’s not especially heart-wrenching. I have been accused of being an “emotional cripple” in the past however, so your mileage may vary! What the book does do well is character development. I ended-up caring about the characters and what happened to them. There’s much more to the book than children killing each other. Which leads me to my only other criticism of the book. And I need to be careful here… The author weaves the story in such a way that the main characters never have to face the most horrible decisions that the Arena threatens. At almost every turn, the author’s providential hand removes those horrible outcomes one by one, until the end.

One last point. If you intend on reading this book, do not read too many reviews and stay away from the Wikipedia write-up. You will ruin the book for yourself if you do. I’ve tried to avoid revealing too much of the story because it is worth reading. I would have been sorely pissed if I’d read an Amazon review that revealed crucial parts of the story before I even picked-up the book. What has been seen cannot be unseen. I would also suggest reading it before the movie is made (Lionsgate Entertainment now has distribution rights) for many of the same reasons.

“It goes on and on and eventually consumes my mind, blocking out memories and hopes of tomorrow, erasing everything but the present, which I begin to believe will never change. There will never be anything but cold and fear and the agonized sounds of the boy dying…”

4.5 out of 5