This story was first published in a shorter form in the April 1959 issue of “The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction” and was expanded into a novel in 1966. It has never been out of print since then. Since I never read this, and it is touted as a “classic,” I decided it was probably time, but I didn’t know much about it in advance.
Charlie Gordon is a “retardate” – a 32-year-old developmentally disabled man with an I.Q. of 68 – who has the opportunity to undergo a surgical procedure that will dramatically increase his mental capabilities. He is highly motivated; he wants desperately to be “smart.” As the story unfolds in “progress reports” written by Charlie, we learn that his mother rejected him because his “dumbness” was an embarrassment to her. More than that: it was anathema. She wanted him out of her sight and away from his “normal” sibling (ironically named Norma).
Alice Kinnian, his teacher at a center for retarded adults, recommended him over other pupils for this new technique, which was apparently successfully performed on the mouse named Algernon.
A short time after undergoing the surgery, we can see from the progress reports that Charlie is getting ever more intelligent, and soon his I.Q. is at the genius level. But his emotional development was not affected by the surgery, and moreover, unanticipated side effects are starting to show up in Algernon.
There are no end to the heart-breaking aspects of this story, from Charlie’s mother’s mistreatment of him and society’s ill treatment of, and condescending attitude toward, the handicapped generally; to Charlie’s misreading of cruelty before his operation to his understanding of it afterwards; to his frustration with the disconnect between his intellect and his affect. On top of it all, Charlie sees what happens to Algernon and knows he will have the same fate.
Evaluation: Well this is like The Most Depressing Book Ever. But it is a good story, and would make a great selection for a book club. There is much to discuss, from the ethics of experimentation to the way society treats those who are less fortunate, and to the many trenchant observations Charlie makes about status, human nature, friendship, and forgiveness. Have kleenex and/or chocolate on hand; I needed both.
Published by Harcourt Brace, 1966 and has been issued in many editions thereafter.
Note: This story has won a number of awards, including Hugo Award Nominee for Best Novel (1967), Nebula Award for Best Novel (1966), Locus Award Nominee for All-Time Best Novel (1975). But it also made the American Library Association’s list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–1999.