This classic novel is a masterpiece. I first read it a few years ago and on re-reading recently I appreciated it even more. Although categorised as science fiction, it’s more about emotional trauma and the need for people to be treated equally, regardless of intellectual ability. Other themes include dysfunctional families, the joy of learning and the brevity of life.
The story is narrated by Charlie Gordon, a man with a low IQ who is eager to learn but the knowledge never sticks. He works a menial job at a bakery, where he is mocked by those he thinks are his friends. He had a terrible childhood as his mother abused him and locked him away, not being able to accept a ‘moron’ as her son. After his desire to ‘be smart’ is picked up by a teacher at adult education college, Charlie is chosen to be the first human to try an experimental operation to increase his intelligence, following its apparent success in a mouse called Algernon.
What increases the poignancy of the story is Charlie’s writing style, which is in the format of progress reports reflecting on how he’s feeling and how the experiment is going. The spelling, grammar and choice of words all reflect his rapidly developing knowledge and reinforce the point that he is a human being, not a scientist’s creation or a laboratory specimen. He is also increasingly aware that his fate is tied into that of Algernon the mouse.
The book is excellently crafted, thought-provoking and very sad. I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be set in the future, but it feels contemporary to the year in which it was published, 1966.
The SF Masterworks edition was published by Gollancz in 2000.