Daniel Keyes died one year ago at the age of 86. He lived a full life and his death is not a time for sadness, but to appreciate the singular accomplishment of his life. He wrote "Flowers for Algernon," which I consider to be the greatest science fiction story of all time.
In that odd way of ranking art, we often like to describe something as the finest example of such and such. "Nightfall," by Isaac Asimov, is often touted as the best science fiction story ever published. While I like "Nightfall," it never really affected me emotionally, just intellectually, and I disagree with the ranking. When the Science Fiction Writers of America were voting, they only ranked stories from before 1965. First published as a short story in 1959 in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, "Flowers for Algernon" also ranked high in the voting, but “Nightfall” won. I suspect that Nightfall won because Isaac Asimov was such a commanding presence within the community of science fiction writers, and while “Nightfall” was his best work, it was one of many outstanding works. As for Keyes, while he published other work, "Flowers for Algernon" shines so brightly that he almost feels like a one-hit wonder.
I was an adult before I read the story and I am not going to describe what happens. Read it yourself. According to the New York Times obituary, Daniel Keyes said that “the character of Charlie occurred to him while he was teaching a special needs class; a student approached him at the end of the period and asked to be transferred out of the ‘dummy’s class’ because he wanted to be smart.”
After Keyes wrote the story, the editor of one science fiction magazine thought that the story was “good,” but would be “great” if he changed the ending. Keyes refused and published in another magazine and won a Hugo Award for best novelette of 1960. The editor at Doubleday also wanted a different ending for the later novel. Keyes again refused. Both editors were wrong. This is a great example of an artist sticking with his original vision and being rewarded. A different ending would have compromised the power of the story.
“Nightfall” is essentially a gimmick story, based on a single idea, while "Flowers for Algernon" confronts the central issue that forms the core of scientific inquiry and the themes of science fiction--that is, intelligence.
Even in a modern world, where race, class, gender, and sexual orientation are often obstacles to succeeding, the greatest obstacle to success has always been the lack of intelligence. Being intelligent is an enormous asset, as are the accompanying traits of conscientiousness, perception, emotional control, and the ability to sacrifice for long-term goals.
What makes us human is our minds and “Flowers for Algernon” teaches us how precious that intelligence is.
Posted: 15 June 2015