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Monday, October 11, 2021

Exploring An Old, Old Story…Daniel Keyes and “Flowers for Algernon” by Guy Stewart

I tripped down memory lane this week reading ALGERNON, CHARLIE, AND I by Daniel Keyes…

I was in junior high when our class read a version of this story written as a play. Honestly? The story did something to my head and I never forgot it after that. I read it as the Hugo-winning novelette much, much later. I’d like to see if I can get this issue of F&SF, but we’ll see. I’ve been collecting too many books and stuff lately!

At any rate, I’ve even gone so far as to write a contemporary, middle-grade novel with a similar theme, though updated. THE RECONSTRUCTION OF MAI LI HASTINGS is about a young teen who helps his mother with his adopted sister, a developmentally disabled young adult who can do nothing for herself.

While all of my brothers and my sister were born in possession of all of the faculties our Human society recognizes as normal, I spent two years working in a facility that “…follows a person-centered, active support approach to ensure that the individuals with disabilities we serve have a hand in directing their services and a voice concerning their future. We place no limits on what a person is capable of accomplishing.”

I worked as a regular caregiver and eventually became a supervisor of the night shift. As a regular caregiver, I was responsible for eight residents – everything from assisting with daily life skills to doing their laundry. As a supervisor, I was required to be familiar with the entire facility’s 32 residents because I was required to do the job of caregiver for any one of the four units if a regular called in sick.

I took my experiences there, my job as a middle school teacher, and my science education, and wrote the novel. I wanted to look at Charlie Gordon’s story from a different angle – the sibling, CJ, of a kid who needed full-time care, who was Mai Li, when she was home; and who went to a day-program when she wasn’t at home.

Before working in the facility, I’d also been certified as a Nursing Assistant and had worked part time as a nurse’s assistant at a nursing home.

All of those observations poured into THE RECONSTRUCTION OF MAI LI HASTINGS.

After reading ALGERNON, CHARLIE, AND ME, I think I know why I wrote my story. “Flowers for Algernon” was last reprinted in February of 2018, in an admittedly obscure volume called The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One, 1929-1964. Your average adolescent isn’t going to pick that volume up and “discover” Daniel Keyes’ story.

Also, recent developments in neuroscience surfaced in late 1999 when Keyes stumbled across an article by Dr. Joe Z. Tsien (then at Princeton), who had genetically engineered a “smart” mouse. The concept, while different, was remarkably like what the doctors in Keyes’ story did to Algernon, the eponymous mouse in the short story. The mouse’s surgery led to the same kind of surgery being performed on Charlie.

Of course, it was successful in the novelette and novel. But it has also been done in mice in reality…The question I have is if Tsien ever read “Flowers for Algernon”. While the article doesn’t mention it, I DO note that Tsien got his doctorate about ten miles from where I’m writing this – the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities; and we’re a pretty big SciFi and Fantasy community with some big names coming from here – including one of my all-time favorites, Clifford D. Simak, Poul Anderson, as well as Gordon R. Dickson, and more recently, Patricia Wrede, Lois McMaster Bujold, and Emma Bull among others, including four prominent Black speculative fiction authors: DC Edwards, Briana Lawrence, Marlon James, and André M. Carrington.

Who knows, maybe someone in Tsien’s doctoral program said, “Hey, you ever read ‘Flowers for Algernon’?”

In ALGERNON, CHARLIE, AND I, Keyes wrote, “I write in hope that, long after I’m gone, my stories and books, like pebbles dropped into waters, will continue to spread in widening circles and touch other minds. Possibly other minds in conflict with themselves.” Yep, I like that. Those might be good words to adopt for myself – and a good sketch of a target I can aim at.

Reference: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joe_Z._Tsien, https://twincitiesgeek.com/2020/02/4-minnesota-sci-fi-and-fantasy-books-by-black-authors-for-black-history-month/

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Guy Stewart 
is a husband supporting his wife who is a multi-year breast cancer survivor; a father, father-in-law, grandfather, foster father, friend, writer, and recently retired teacher and school counselor who maintains a writing blog by the name of POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAYS (https://faithandsciencefiction.blogspot.com/) where he showcases his opinion and offers his writing up for comment. He has 72 stories, articles, reviews, and one musical script to his credit, and the list still includes one book! He also maintains GUY'S GOTTA TALK ABOUT BREAST CANCER & ALZHEIMER'S, where he shares his thoughts and translates research papers into everyday language. In his spare time, he herds cats and a rescued dog, helps keep a house, and loves to bike, walk, and camp.

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