Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

(discussed December 10, 1997)

On a ten-point scale (1=bad, 10=good), the people present gave the following ratings: 3, 6, 7, 7.9, 8, 10. Average: 7.0

Awards: Flowers for Algernon won the Nebula for Best Novel in 1966 (tied with Samuel R. Delany's Babel-17). The short story from which it grew, "Flowers for Algernon," won the Hugo for Best Short Fiction in 1960. (Trivia fact: The only other prose Hugo given in 1960 was for Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers.)

This book was "sponsored" by Gregory Rawlins, but now that he has re-read it, he partly repudiated it. His main complaint was that Flowers for Algernon is ten times as long as the original short story, but it has less impact. The expansion doesn't add any new ideas, just characterization and information about the lives of the mentally handicapped. Also, Gregory is interested in intelligence, and the portrayal of intelligence, in SF, and he felt that the attempt to portray intelligence here was completely unconvincing, though it worked in the short story. (For the record, Gregory didn't give the book one of the ratings above, since he doesn't believe in rating things like this.)

Raja Thiagarajan, who gave the book a 10, was surprised to be its foremost guardian. He said he came in with a chip on his shoulder, since the short story was so good, and was expecting to find the book padded and dull. But he thought the added material -- largely characterization of the main character -- was interesting in its own right. Also the book was downright seductive: Since the last few SFDG books were very slow going, he started the book early -- only to have to stop, lest he finish it in one setting. And each time he picked it up again, he would end up reading more than he had planned. John Gallman said that was because the book placed no demands on the reader (unlike, say, Riddley Walker), to which Raja replied that John was just sore because Daniel Keyes had a point to make with his non-standard use of English, unlike Russell Hoban ;-)

The group consensus seemed to be that the short story was brilliant, but that the novel wasn't better (and may have been worse). Sue mentioned that when a novel is "grown" from a short story, the results are usually disappointing. Raja wracked his brain for a counter-example; the only convincing one was Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End. (Other examples, such as More Than Human, were either inappropriate or served to underline Sue's point. ;-)

Later thoughts: One point that he didn't get to make at the meeting: Raja wants to praise Keyes for mixing the main character's waking and dreaming thoughts so well; for the time, that was probably a daring move for a SFnal book. Also: "I would certainly give the short story a 10, but perhaps the novel only rates a 9."