Once upon a time, reading science-fiction was frowned upon by older people. Growing up, I had many a teacher or other grown-up tell me, “Stop wasting your time on that garbage and read something worthwhile.” “Worthwhile,” of course, meaning “literature,” whether that be Shakespeare, Faulkner, or (God help me) John Irving.
I would protest (almost always unsuccessfully) that sci-fi could be “literary.” Regardless of how those discussions went, I kept reading sci-fi for many years, and I never regretted any of the time spent. Recently, I re-read the first volume of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, and was reminded why I was correct when rebutting the naysayers.
I mentioned before that the Science Fiction Hall of Fame has an impressive amount of outstanding short stories from the ‘30s to the ‘60’s. One of my favorites (and one of the most acclaimed) is “Flowers for Algernon,” about Charlie Gordon, a mentally-disabled man whose IQ rises, over several weeks, from 68 to over 200 thanks to experimental surgical and teaching procedures.
As his intellect progresses first to average, then to genius levels, Charlie feels increasingly alienated from the people he knows. At one point, he writes in his journal:
I am very disturbed. I saw Miss Kinnian last night for the first time in over a week. I tried to avoid all discussions of intellectual concepts and to keep the conversation on a simple, everyday level, but she just stared at me blankly and asked me what I meant about the mathematical variance equivalent in Dorbermann’s Fifth Concerto.
When I tried to explain she stopped me and laughed…. I find that I don’t communicate with people much any more. Thank God for books and music and things I can think about. I am alone in my apartment at Mrs. Flynn’s boardinghouse most of the time and seldom speak to anyone.
Re-reading this story for the first time in decades, I was struck by how the brilliant Charlie Gordon reminded me of my wife’s uncle Jerry, who passed away last year. If Jerry was not an actual genius (I don’t know what his IQ was), he was at the very least extremely intelligent, possessing degrees in chemical engineering and able to speak several languages. He was a superb automotive mechanic, followed politics and several sports, and could discuss just about anything scientific.
He was also a lifelong bachelor and a loner: while he would visit my father-in-law (and his large, boisterous family) several times a year for holidays, he usually didn’t say much. After reading “Flowers,” I wonder if he ever felt like he had to keep “conversation on a simple, everyday level.” That he was thinking about all kinds of things that “regular folks” wouldn’t relate to.
As “Flowers for Algernon” goes on, Charlie researches the procedures that granted him enhanced intelligence and learns that the process is flawed: he is doomed to rapidly regress to his previous levels. He writes in his journal:
Deterioration progressing. I have become absentminded…I have become touchy and irritable. I feel the darkness closing in. It’s hard to throw off thoughts of suicide…It’s a strange sensation to pick up a book that you’ve read and enjoyed just a few months ago and discover that you don’t remember it. I remembered how great I thought John Milton was, but when I picked up Paradise Lost I couldn’t understand it at all. I got so angry I threw the book across the room.
I’ve got to try to hold on to some of it. Some of the things I’ve learned. Oh, God, please don’t take it all away.
Sometimes, at night, I go out for a walk. Last night I couldn’t remember where I lived. A policeman took me home.
Why can’t I remember? I’ve got to fight. I lie in bed for days and I don’t know who or where I am. Then it all comes back to me in a flash…I’m forgetting things that I learned recently. It seems to be following the classic pattern—the last things learned are the first things forgotten….Motor activity impaired. I keep tripping over things….
Jerry developed dementia; the disease progressed slowly, over several years, and most of us had little inkling of his condition because he lived far away, outside Philadelphia. My sister-in-law Alex often visited him, though, and eventually she became concerned when she learned from the people next door that Jerry wandered the neighborhood and could not longer drive. She moved him closer to her and became his primary caregiver, eventually taking him into her house when he was no longer able to live by himself.
Like Charlie, Jerry knew what was happening to him, and was powerless to do anything about it. He could remember events from a long time ago, but not things that had happened recently. He would try to take apart objects, and often said that he “had to get out of here”–wherever “here” happened to be at the moment. He often become frustrated—sometimes very much so—at his ever-increasing inability to recall a word or a name, attempting by pantomime to tell us what or who he meant. Eventually, he had troubling walking, and had to be moved around in a wheelchair.
In “Flowers for Algernon,” Charlie’s fate is unclear: his last journal entry says that he will go away so that no one who knew him before would have to see him in his reduced capacity. The story hints that perhaps he will lose all intelligence and die, as did the mouse Algernon, the first subject of the intelligence enhancements.
Jerry did die from dementia, of course. Before the end came, he lost all his intellect, all his words and his muscle control. He was confined to bed, fed and cleaned by others (Alex mostly, but sometimes his other nieces, and me, too, on a few occasions). It was a tragic and undignified death, and not at all what he deserved. It is the death that awaits millions of older people, and my family has a history of it. I fear it will happen to me.
“Flowers for Algernon” is “science-fiction” because it speculates on the effects of technology we do not currently possess. But it is also “literature” because it illuminates the human condition. Re-reading “Flowers,” I felt a better understanding of Jerry, a man I had hardly spoken with before his illness. Because of “Flowers,” I could place myself in his situation, first as an introverted near-genius, then as a victim of a terrible, mind-destroying disease.
That’s what sci-fi can do. That’s why I still read it.