Posts Tagged ‘Flowers for Algernon’

David Mitchell: Cloud Atlas

August 27, 2021

     Various friends have recommended this novel highly over the years; someone selecting it as their choice in our book group has finally got me to read it, and I’m glad I did, despite finding it annoying and frustrating at times.

It’s another of those late 20th century, very long and rambling novels, almost shaggy-dog stories really, with enough varied subject-matter to arouse one’s interest and more than enough narrative skill to keep one hooked, although early on I did wonder where on earth Mitchell was going with it. At times I was reminded of Anthony Burgess, at others of Neal Stephenson’s astonishing Baroque Cycle. Sequentially in time we work our way from the early nineteenth century through six stories, to our present and then into the future, and then cycle back through them to where we began; there are various links and connections skilfully woven in between the stories, too. If you realise early enough that this is what will happen, you do also then begin thinking about Mitchell’s overall plan and direction.

For me the most interesting sections were a sort of future utopia based on current North Korean society, which was a real tour-de-force, a variation on the innocence/ experience trope, and I could see many traces of ideas from Daniel Keyes’ excellent Flowers For Algernon, as well as passing acknowledgement of Huxley and Orwell, in terms of unpicking the differences between utopia and dystopia. I remember from my teaching days being rather surprised at how many students said they would be quite happy to live in Brave New World. They had a point, sometimes unshaken by my next question, ‘OK, but would you be human?’ The recycling of the fabricants recalled both quite a few of Philip Dick’s SF novels, and also Harry Harrison’s Make Room, Make Room, which was the source of the cult 1970s film Soylent Green

The central, post-apocalyptic future world is really well-conceived and described, and finally convinced me about how good the whole novel was. Again, there are echoes of earlier novels, particularly Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker which I found reflected in Mitchell’s narrative style and use of language.

Mitchell’s ultimate question seems to be whether entropy is finally drawing the human species on to eventual self-destruction. My feeling now – some twenty years after its first publication – is yes, but Mitchell wants us to examine our thinking and realise that a better world may be possible, despite his not having described one in any of the various strands of his novel. Our response to our world, and the choices we make, depend on how we look at that world, how we visualise things and describe them, and in the end the stories we create about the past and the future, because it’s the stories that persist rather than what actually happened…in other words we create our realities and we could therefore create different or better ones, if we looked at ourselves differently, thought differently and described our world and ourselves differently. At least, that’s my take on this epic at the moment.

It’s a thought-provoking novel at many different junctures, and Mitchell attempts to reflect his thesis in the way he has structured the cyclical stories, but I did think that this wasn’t fully clear, and tended to obscure his meanings… A stunningly good read, though.

Mary Shelley: Frankenstein

February 21, 2018

51GET68hBaL._AC_US218_41oH4CCckML._AC_US218_It’s 200 years this year since Mary Shelley‘s ground-breaking novel Frankenstein was first published. I have memories of teaching it at GCSE, in an interesting coursework task that involved students having to compare a pre and post-1914 text, so I paired Shelley’s novel up with Daniel KeyesFlowers for Algernon and had students explore the question of scientists’ responsibilities, as well as how the narratives were presented and developed.

I have always thought Frankenstein counted as science fiction: the writer explores an idea that does not exist in our world but that perhaps might one day; scientists were already experimenting then with the effects of electric currents on limbs and muscles. Shelley creates the scientist’s excitement at achieving something never done before – the creation of life in the laboratory. She was treading on sensitive and controversial ground, just as Darwin was to do a couple of generations later, meddling in God’s territory, as it was then thought to be. But the centre of her novel is not what the scientist does and achieves, but what he overlooks…

Victor Frankenstein forgets – or doesn’t even begin to think about – the fact that when he creates new life he creates a human being that will have wants and needs, hopes and desires just like any other, and when that creature is limited in what he can do and have by his physical repulsiveness to others, he resents this bitterly and reacts against it in unexpected ways…

Shelley realises, early on in the days of scientific progress, that a scientist does not work in a vacuum, that scientists change the potential of our world, and that responsibilities are attached to such changes. Scientists today are very much apt to be ignorant of just this; scientists prostitute themselves in the service of governments and multinational corporations without regard to the consequences of what they do. There is the excitement of pushing forward the boundaries of human knowledge and capability, which I can understand and sympathise with, but knowledge is not value-neutral. And there is the rather pathetic response often proffered: well, if I didn’t do it, someone else would…

And so there are scientists who earn their daily bread by developing undetectable anti-personnel mines in bright colours that attract children to pick them up, scientists that work on ways of making highly profitable edible goods that bear no resemblance to food and we know it and are positively bad for people’s health… I could go on.

And yet, Shelley forces her hero to interact with his creation: the two cannot be separated, as the creature pursues its creator, demanding that he take responsibility for what he has made, who he has made, and Victor Frankenstein is brought to face the complexity of what his creature has asked him to do, its repercussions, his full responsibility. We know how it ends: I often wish some of today’s scientists and engineers might share the consequences of their work..

Frankenstein is a novel, and for me it has its flaws: the pace and the written style is hectic and exhausting to read, with the emotional pitch sustained at a very high level for too long. It is, however, very cleverly structured, with layers of narrative nested within each other like the layers of an onion, as the reader is distanced from characters and events. And it has that superb and haunting ending, so brilliantly filmed in the original screen version in the 1930s, of creator and creature inseparable in the Arctic wastes…

Mary Shelley’s foray into what we now call science fiction did not end with Frankenstein: for me, The Last Man is much better, a novel which looks two centuries into the future to late twenty-first century republican Britain, laid waste by a disease which wipes out all of the human race except one man.

Daniel Keyes: Flowers for Algernon

June 18, 2014

41Fjf1EXV+L._AA160_Another reactive post: today the death of SF writer Daniel Keyes was announced; I’ve long admired this novel, and as a former student of SF, wanted to add my thoughts and appreciation.

The novel began as a short story ‘Charley‘ before being developed into a full-length novel; a young man with a very low IQ and serious learning difficulties becomes the subject of an experimental scientific and medical procedure which apparently can address his problems; as a result his intelligence gradually increases until he is far ahead of those hwo developed and administered the procedure. Tragedy then strikes: the effects achieved are not permanent and Charley knows that he will regress gradually to a point possibly even worse than where he began…

We follow his story, the changes he undergoes and difficulties he faces, and his interaction with the scientists whose experiment he ultimately is. Keyes’ master-stroke was to have Charley tell his own story from start to finish as a diary, complete with his poor grammar, spelling and understanding of the world, his naivete, his feelings and emotions in his own words, at the outset; his growing intellect is reflected in his style and attitude, as is his end… it would be very hard not to be moved by the picture Keyes paints, because to have known and to know one will lose, and to see the loss, is surely tragic.

Back in my days as a teacher, it was a great text to use at GCSE. I paired it with Mary Shelley‘s Frankenstein, another novel about a scientist experimenting with life from a completely different era. We looked at how the writers explored the changes undergone by the subjects of the experiments, and how they also explored the responsibilities of scientists towards society and their guinea-pigs. Students produced some very thoughtful and high quality work; we were able to consider how the novels were written differently because of the time, how writers structured stories, and how they manipulated readers’ responses. In Gove-land, this will not be permitted.

There was apparently a film made of the book, which I have not seen. And Algernon, if you are wondering, is a mouse which underwent the experiment before Charley and became his pet; Algernon’s death makes everyone realise that the experiment has not been a success….

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