Of mice and men

Flowers for Algernon

Richard P. Grant 5 October 2014

Experimental error: detail from the cover

The ultra-intelligent Charlie reminds me more than a little of Richard Dawkins

What is lab lit?

We often struggle with this question, even though our ‘About’ page (“real laboratory culture and […] the portrayal and perceptions of that culture”) and Wikipedia make it sound straightforward: the literary treatment of science as a profession, featuring scientists as central characters if not always protagonists.

Lab lit is not science fiction of course – although even science fiction struggles with a similar crisis of identity. The line between any of fantasy fiction, speculative fiction, mainstream literature with a bit of science or “what if” thrown in, science fiction and lab lit itself is by nature slightly blurred and curved. The film Gravity, for example: science fiction or lab lit? A perfectly believable work of fiction with a scientist (or at least an engineer) front and centre, sacrificing nothing to fantasy except that which is needed to make the story work.

Ultimately, none of this should matter to the person in search of a good story. The genre of a piece of literary art should make as much difference to the quality or enjoyment of that novel or play as the realization that a favourite piece of music is in the key of G. Nonetheless, this website is dedicated to finding works that might be labelled as such and bringing the genre microscope to bear (at times it’s a telescope, but it’s best not to stretch a metaphor too far). Sometimes this causes us to scratch our heads a little.

According to Wikipedia, Flowers for Algernon is science fiction. It is contemporary – only the cost of rent and haircuts, and the attitude of the protagonist/narrator to women belie its true setting in the late 1950s. The conceit of the story revolves around a single “what if”; and not one that seems particularly far-fetched. Is this science fiction or lab lit?

The protagonist is by no means a scientist – at least, not to start with – but is rather the subject of an experiment. As he becomes aware of the experiment, and especially its limitations, he does end up writing a scientific paper. The scientists performing the experiment are not shadowy background figures, but play central roles in the story and the plot, and even have in at least one case a backstory of their own. Even the trope of scientists meddling with things they’re not meant to understand makes an unwelcome appearance – but that’s not a diagnostic of science fiction.

Charlie Gordon is, as the book has it, a "retard", suffering, it transpires, from the genetic condition of phenylketonuria. He is selected for an experimental operation to increase his intelligence – an operation that has previously been tested on the eponymous Algernon, a mouse.

We read Charlie’s journal, in which he describes his progress from before the operation to 7 or 8 months after. We see how he struggles to compete with Algernon in solving a maze, through becoming “normal”, to his turning into a super-genius and becoming aware of his condition – past, present and, critically, future.

We are privileged to see these changes before Charlie himself, who despite his vast intelligence remains emotionally stunted. In fact, one of the themes of the novel must be the necessity of self-awareness, something that Charlie in the end only faintly grasps. He is always self-centred, completely self-absorbed, and ultimately selfish. The lack of correspondence between intelligence and emotion, or even likeability, is another theme: I never found myself laughing, with other characters, at the "moronic" Charlie, although I did come to despise the genius (it has to be said, the ultra-intelligent Charlie reminds me more than a little of Richard Dawkins).

How Charlie finally finds himself, finds happiness of sorts, will not come as a surprise to the shrewd reader. But the story is sensitively handled (references throughout to the “men of science” and the like notwithstanding), and there are more than enough gems in the story, simple enough, to reward the reader.

So is “Flowers for Algernon” lab lit?

I’m not sure. I think it is a long way from being science fiction, and if pushed to assign a genre I would not be upset to see it on our List. But either way, it doesn’t really matter.

Just enjoy it.

Other articles by Richard P. Grant