Daniel Keyes

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Daniel Keyes began writing science-fiction stories in 1952, during a brief career as an editorial associate with a fiction magazine. He began to write soon after receiving his college degree at the age of thirty-three. None of his stories gained critical notice, however, until his short-fiction piece “Flowers for Algernon” was published in 1959.

“Flowers for Algernon” tells the story of Charlie Gordon, a thirty-year-old man with an IQ less than seventy. Charlie has, however, an intense desire to learn and to become more intelligent. He is chosen to be the first human subject in an experiment aimed at surgically correcting the brain in a way that is hoped will triple Charlie’s IQ. The same technique appears to have been successful on a white laboratory mouse named Algernon. The entire story is told through the journal written by Charlie, documenting his feelings and experiences as he increases in intelligence to genius level, then slowly and tragically returns to his former intellectual abilities.

The story brought immediate attention to Keyes, earning a Hugo Award as the best short science fiction in 1960. The story was innovative in style and content. The challenging technique of telling the story entirely in Charlie’s words is extremely effective. In addition, Keyes’s portrait of the nature of intelligence differs greatly from those in numerous previous science-fiction stories. Keyes portrays low intelligence in a sympathetic manner, effectively arguing that intelligence is only one of the things that makes people human.

Keyes wrote “Flowers for Algernon” while working as an English teacher, where his experiences with educationally challenged students may have formed much of the basis for the story. In 1961, Keyes earned his Master of Arts degree and became an instructor in English at Wayne State University. After moving to Ohio University, Athens, he attained his professorship in 1972.

In 1966, Keyes published an expanded version of his story, detailing Charlie’s intellectual rise and fall and adding startling details about Charlie’s tragic early life with his parents and sister, who abandon him. The novel Flowers for Algernon was also very well received, earning Keyes the Nebula Award for the best science-fiction novel in 1967. In 1968, a film titled Charly was made, with Charlie played by Cliff Robertson, who won an Oscar for best actor for his performance.

Keyes later wrote two other novels, The Touch (1968), about psychological stress after an industrial accident, and The Fifth Sally (1980), based on a true case of a woman with multiple personalities. None of his other fiction, however, achieved the success and critical notice of his stories about Charlie Gordon. Keyes’s moving and effective “Flowers for Algernon” remains, perhaps, the best story on the nature of human intelligence and what it means to be human.

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