Wednesday, May 13, 2015

#43: Flowers for Algernon, #86: Blood Music

Flowers For Algernon:

"Although we know the end of the maze holds death (and it is something I have not always known --not long ago the adolescent in me thought death could happen only to other people), I see now that the path I choose through that maze makes me what I am. I am not only  thing, but also a way of being --one of many ways-- and knowing the paths I have followed and the ones left to take will help me understand what I am becoming."
"No one really starts anything new...Everyone builds on other men's failures. There is nothing really original in science. What each man contributes to the sum of knowledge is what counts."
"I've learned that intelligence alone doesn't mean a damned thing. Here in your university, intelligence, education, knowledge, have all become great idols. But I know now there's one thing you've all overlooked: intelligence and education that hasn't been tempered by human affection isn't worth a damn."
"And as I lay there with her I could see how important physical love was, how necessary it was for us to be in each other's arms, giving and taking. The universe was exploding, each particle away from the next, hurtling us into dark and lonely space, eternally tearing us away from each other --child out of the womb, friend away from friend, moving from each other, each through his own pathway toward the goal-box of solitary death. 
But this was the counter-weight, the act of binding and holding. As when men to keep from being swept overboard clutch at each other's hands to resist being torn apart, so our bodies fused a link in the human chain that kept us from being swept into nothing."
Like Brian Aldiss' excellent novel, Non-Stop, I feel that Flowers For Algernon is a novel that must be partially "spoiled" in order to be adequately reviewed. The plot might already be familiar to you, even if you haven't read it yet, because it is one of the most famous science fiction novels ever written (and justifiably so). I, too, was somewhat familiar with the plot before I cracked open my old paperback edition of Flowers, and I didn't find that this noticeably hindered my enjoyment of the novel. But I will repeat my statement from my review of Non-Stop, for those who like to go into a read completely blind and unknowing: If you are one of these people, stop reading this review right now, and take my word for it: this is an engaging and emotional read --not to mention the fact that it's much more accessible to the average reader than most SF works.
Flowers for Algernon is a first-person account of Charlie Gordon's odyssey through various stages of intellectual development. Charlie lives most of his life as a mentally retarded individual, and as the novel opens, we see him plodding his way through life: doing menial labor at a bakery, and trying his hardest to learn basic reading and writing skills in a class for slow adults. He has been chosen to participate in an experiment that could drastically increase his intelligence through surgery, and he is writing down his thoughts in a diary of sorts for the scholars behind the experiment to examine and learn from. The experiment has been shown to work on animals, as evidenced by the lab mouse, Algernon. The little mouse constantly beats Charlie in various mental challenges, such as running mazes, in the early stages of the novel, but after Charlie receives the surgery, things slowly start to turn around. Charlie's prose gradually becomes more thoughtful and articulate, and he starts to notice things in everyday life that he hadn't observed before. Some things frighten him, some things startle him, and some things delight him. As Charlie's intellectual development progresses, he develops feelings for his old teacher at the center for slow adults, Alice Kinnian, but she remains very hesitant about the whole situation, a big area of frustration for Charlie moving forward.
Charlie soon intellectually outclasses the professors who are working on the project --and they even become threatened by his sudden glut of knowledge. He learns new languages at a stunning pace, and gains expertise in a great number of subjects. But his mental state is fragile with all this new information and reeling from such rapid growth. He starts remembering his old family, and how they abandoned him after many painful incidents at home and school. And soon, Algernon starts to deteriorate mentally. Charlie figures out that it won't be too long before he follows the same path --the experiment was flawed and there is nothing he can do while he watches his sharp intellect grow duller and duller. Algernon dies, and as the novel ends, we are left with little hope that Charlie, now as mentally slow as he has ever been, won't suffer the same fate soon.
The highlight of this novel, for me, was certainly Keyes' excellent depiction of Charlie's intellectual and emotional development. The way he sketches his narrator is nothing short of masterful. The other characters in the novel are only there to interact with and influence Charlie, and we remain fixated on him, even as other dynamic and ambiguous characters like Alice Kinnian spring up. Even when you know it's coming, Charlie's decline hits you harder than you expect. The gradual change in voice as the novel closes is, in a word, heart-breaking. In the weeks before he reverts back to his child-like state of mind, we experience a profound sense of tragedy and loss along with Charlie --it's quite reminiscent of the end of Silverberg's Dying Inside: emotional, bleak, and devoid of hope.
If I had to pinpoint my favorite scene in this novel, it would be the episode at the Chicago psychological conference. It's the pivot that the whole book turns on, the scene where Charlie has the ghastly realization that his intelligence will soon wane. It's poignant, wise and sad, like the book as a whole.
Although the plot meanders at times (I think 50 or so pages could have been cut out without great detriment to the story), Flowers For Algernon leaves one with the impression that it is one of the best character studies in all of science fiction. The rare moments of tenderness save Flowers from being a complete downer, but again, the conclusion hits hard and certainly is no "happy ending". Flowers is extremely accessible, but also potentially draining and depressing. I'd certainly recommend it, with these things taken into account, to SF and non-SF fans alike.

Blood Music:


"There was only so much change a single individual could stand. Innovation, even radical creation, was essential, but the results had to be applied cautiously, with careful forethought. Nothing forced, nothing imposed. That was the ideal. Everyone had the right to stay the same until they decided otherwise.
That was damned naive". 
"Life is the right held by an individual to normality and normal progress, normal aging...who would take away that right."

"Vergil simply did not think such things through. Brilliant in the creation, slovenly in the consideration of consequences. Wasn't that true of every creator? Didn't anyone who changed things ultimately lead some people --perhaps many people --to death, grief, torment?"
It is strange, looking back after having read Blood Music, to even think of it as a single book. For me, Blood Music felt more like two short novels, very different in tone from each other, sandwiched together with connective tissue that felt somewhat thin. The first part of the novel was enjoyable enough, but the second part was very much out-of-left-field for me. Perhaps it was this fact that made me enjoy the second part, and thus the entire novel less. I felt like I was waiting for a more sensible conclusion to the material from the first part, while also gradually forming the opinion that the novel's second part could have worked a little bit better with a more suitable introduction.
Blood Music opens with the story of a character that I immediately connected to, Vergil Ulam (think half mad-scientist, half Coretti from William Gibson's The Belonging Kind). He's a disgruntled young scientist working at a biotech company, and he certainly has some ideas of his own in terms of research. He has been working on engineering lymphocytes with the intellectual capability of rhesus monkeys --but his work is deemed dangerous and unproductive, and his superiors order him to shut down the project once they learn of it. Ulam, unwilling to give up his work, injects himself with the intelligent lymphocytes...and they soon begin to get ideas of their own. The way Bear deals with these opening sequences is interesting but sometimes heavily scientific; it's enough to get the non-science-savvy reader like myself bogged down slightly, but it doesn't become a significant hinderance to the narrative. And if you like this sort of thing, Bear is one of the acknowledged masters of modern Hard SF, so you will find enough to sink your teeth into, science-wise.
Once Ulam's "plague" has begun to spread, Bear expertly conveys a sense of the panic and disbelief that seem to accompany swift natural disasters in a very immediate and real way. As more people are infected with Ulam's smart cells --"noocytes" he calls them-- the novel starts to shift in a way that seemed unnatural to me. I had been expecting, and had gotten, a super-charged version of The Andromeda Strain up to this point, filled with baffled scientists and fumbling, panicky attempts at a quick cure, to go along with a real world break-out than isn't ever fully experienced in The Andromeda Strain. But Bear takes a sharp, post-apocalyptic turn after this that still has me scratching my head. It's not so much the fact that we get a post-apocalyptic wasteland in the novel's second half, but more so the weird tone that it adopts, that provokes this reaction. The atmosphere is suddenly calm, tranquil and even psychedelic, as opposed to the run-of-the-mill, but well-done, disaster type panic we see in the first part. It can get frustrating and outlandish at times, although there are still strong points to be accounted for.
The conclusion was one of the frustrating points, a mysterious, but optimistic vision of a united, enlightened humanity that I might have enjoyed more if it didn't clash so obviously with the first part of the novel.
Another bone I have to pick with Bear is his characterization. Suzy was endearing, and the Milligans were relatable enough, but not many of the other characters were extremely likeable. There were too many characters that I felt neutral towards, and some of the dialogue and interaction felt unrealistic at times. You could say that Bear writes too much "like a scientist" in some sections of this novel.
At the end of the day, Blood Music was a good, but not a great read. There are some nice ideas in there, especially Gogarty's theory of physics (perhaps the most intriguing part of the book), and some colorful descriptions of the forms that the "plague" takes after it envelops North America. It's also a book that is very disturbing, in more ways than one. You might even classify it as SF/Horror. I might add that, although the first half is the more conventionally disturbing, I found the second half to be just as unsettling --I just don't like a lot of the enforced singular utopias you see in SF dating back to Clarke and Asimov --the elimination of individuality never strikes me as a good thing. So the verdict is this, Blood Music is recommended with reservations: Hard SF junkies should check it out, but as far as general readers go, I don't think it's for everybody.

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