Flowers for Algernon
It's a tale as old as time, or at least as old as Warner Bros.: a super-smart lab mouse and his sidekick scheme to defeat their captors and take over the world in Flowers for Algernon. Pinky and the Brain, anyone? Okay, so our main guy, Charlie, is a little more into surviving an experimental surgery than making minions bow to his greatness—and he also isn't a mouse (though his sidekick is)—but author Daniel Keyes is certainly interested in what happens when you futz around with intelligence of the artificial variety… and let's just say it's not all rainbows and butterflies. In fact, he was so interested in telling Charlie's story that he expanded it from a short story in a science fiction mag to a big honkin' book.
Anyway, take a look at when the book was published: in 1966, right smack dab between Leave it to Beaver and radical hippies peacing out all over the place. People with disabilities are slowly gaining civil rights, but discrimination still occurs on the regular.
So where does Charlie fit into this equation?
He's a lonely guy who thinks smarts will skyrocket him to popularity, but there's a major reality check heading his way—super-intelligence isn't exactly the status quo, after all. And for a decade known for radical ideas, there sure is a lot of emphasis placed on conformity.
If you're looking for some real 1960s flavor, check out Charly, the 1968 film based on Flowers for Algernon. You get plopped right into the debate on tinkering with intelligence while sampling some sweet 1960s cinematography. And if Charly's a little on the heavy side, TiVo Pinky and the Brain for some comic relief.
Why Should I Care?
It's 2:00AM the night before a major anatomy exam, and your brain is maxed out with studying. Flashcards are flashing before your eyes, the Red Bull is wearing off, and you're about to pass out on your computer keyboard from sheer exhaustion.
"If only I could cram for a little longer," you think. That A+ is within reach—it's an achievable dream. But before you know it, you're actually dreaming.
You're dreaming of a mad scientist who promises you the ultimate brain, perfect for acing tests and impressing teachers. All you have to do is undergo a little experimental surgery. "Are there any catches?" you ask (your dream self is so naïve).
"Well… we experienced some setbacks with Patient 1, a guy named Charlie," the scientist says. "And we could come up against some of the limits set by physics. You'll definitely gain intelligence, but we're not exactly sure what you might lose."
Hmm, you think. What are you willing to sacrifice for a sharper brain? It sounds like you won't know what you lose until you go under the knife. You're about to ask the scientist more about this Charlie fellow when you snap out of the dream, a bit of drool dribbling down your chin.
"It's too late for ethical questions," you say to yourself as you shut the books for the night and prepare to log some serious face time with your pillow.
Tsk, tsk… It's never too late for ethical questions, which is a mighty good reason to read Flowers for Algernon.