Do Not Go Gentle Into That Dark Night: SF by Starlight, April 2005

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Mike Resnick‘s “Down Memory Lane” from the April/May issue of Asimov’s, while a thoughtful homage to Daniel Keyes’ “Flowers for Algernon,” surely stands on its own as one of the best stories of 2005.

The metaphor of life as a light, whose luminence burns bright but inevitably sputters into darkness and death, and is something to be held at bay, was poignantly set to words by the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas when he exhorted, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Dark Night, But Rage, Rage, Against The Dying Of The Light.” This powerful theme was given voice in the SF world when Daniel Keyes wedded it to one of SF’s oldest tropes, that of super-human or otherwise enhanced intelligence. “Flowers for Algernon” (F&SF, April, 1959) was Keyes’ second published story and its brilliance has not dimmed over the intervening 46 years (to the exact month of the Resnick story). It won a Hugo award in 1960 for Best Novelette and the expanded novel won a Nebula Award in 1966. The 1968 movie version, Charly, won Cliff Robertson an Oscar in the lead role of “Charlie Gordon.” It has been dramatized on television and even produced as a dramatic musical, Charlie and Algernon.

Of “Flowers,” James Gunn writes:  “[Keyes] tells…the story of Charlie Gordon, a story of classic reversal, of a humble man’s rise to competence and success and his subsequent fate, a story that tells us about the way people behave and feel from one person’s effort to cope with his unusual experience. One reason it appeals so broadly is that it deals primarily with people’s feelings rather than with the examination of ideas that might change the way people live and even how they think. It is the traditional method of mainstream fiction.” — (The Road to Science Fiction, Volume 4:  From Here To Forever, White Wolf, 1982, p. 122)

Norman Spinrad, in The Bulletin of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (#146, Summer 2000), while writing an appreciation of Keyes as the newest SFWA Author Emeritus, calls “Flowers for Algernon” a “perfect novella.” He then goes on to say of it:  “This story is a classic because, unlike most science fiction, it is not centered only on the emotional life of its protagonist: its impact on the reader is primarily emotional, and it may be said to be a true tragedy in both the Aristotelian formal sense and the Shakespearean literary sense.”

For those unfamiliar with “Flowers for Algernon,” the storyline is an uncomplicated one. Charlie Gordon, with an I.Q. of 68, is retarded. He is asked to participate in, and is chosen for, an experimental surgical technique that will hopefully increase his intelligence. This experimental technique has so far only been attempted on Algernon, a mouse. Algernon’s intelligence curve is slightly ahead of Charlie’s as the operation was first performed on “him.” As Algernon’s intelligence and problem-solving abilities increase, so do Charlie’s. Charlie’s I.Q. peaks around 200, and whole new worlds and intellectual vistas are opened to him for the first time. After some time, he begins to notice Algernon’s mental decline, and then death, and knows this presages his own. As he returns to the mental darkness from which he came, we feel for Charlie as if for ourselves. It is a testament to Keyes’ skill in portraying Charlie’s rise and eventual fall that marks this story as a true classic, and this reader’s favorite SF story of all time.

One does not tamper with perfection. One rarely merely copies an original classic in any medium with any measure of public approval or commercial success. Why copy a classic, while adding nothing new? Might as well enjoy the original. It is a high wire act very few professionals even attempt. They’re too smart, and realize the odds of failure are long. There are only two instances I can recall where the central conceit of “Flowers for Algernon”—that “Dying of the Light” theme, if you will—has been reworked successfully. The first is a novel and not short fiction; Robert Silverberg‘s excellent 1972 novel Dying Inside, which follows the life of telepath David Selig, and his descent into darkness as his telepathic abilities fade. The second is Mike Resnick’s deceptively clever and touching “Down Memory Lane,” the only piece of short fiction I can recall that has the cojones to so obviously pay tribute to Keyes’ untouchable classic, while imparting something so original as to make it a story unique unto itself.

“Down Memory Lane” tells the story of Paul and Gwendolyn. They have been married for sixty years and love each other beyond measure. Gwendolyn, 82, is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. As she slowly regresses to early childhood, Paul does everything in his power to help her, to find a cure, before they are lost to each other forever. Eventually, Gwendolyn is placed in a Care Center for such patients, and Paul is off to Guatemala to take part in an experimental trial for a cancer cure (he has lied about his having terminal cancer). He has learned that a possible side-effect of this experimental technique is a loss of memory—Alzheimer’s. He does not want to live his normal life without Gwendolyn, so has chosen to join her. He gets his wish, but with unforeseen consequences. He makes it home with help from others along the way (he has forgotten where he was and why), and their family physician, Dr. Castleman, has no choice but to place Paul in the same Care Center where Gwendolyn is spending her final days. Paul and Gwendolyn remember nothing of their former lives, not who they were, how much they were in love, or how they spent their lives together. They do not recognize one another, though Paul sees a “pretti gurl” once or twice. As in “Flowers,” an unreliable narrator diary is being kept by Paul.

Since “Down Memory Lane” is still available at bookstores as I type, it is too new to give away the specifics of how the story ends (though one could most likely hazard a reasonable guess). Suffice it to say that, in its own way, “Down Memory Lane” is just as moving and touching as “Flowers for Algernon.” That said, there are differences. The obvious one being that rather than the protagonist opting for intelligence-enhancing surgery as in “Flowers,” in “Memory” Paul is interested in just the opposite. Which is, I think, unique. After all, who would opt to decrease their own intelligence and/or memory? And why would one do such a drastic thing? Resnick offers an answer to both:  love. But then the story takes a depressing twist. Paul has gotten his wish to be on the same level as Gwendolyn, but has not taken into account that he, too, will have forgotten who she is, as well as even who he is. So it would appear that his plan has backfired, with dire consequences for himself. But what had he to lose, for without Gwendolyn his life would not have been worth living. At this point, the story parallels “Flowers” in what Spinrad above has called “a true tragedy in both the Aristotelian formal sense and the Shakespearean literary sense.” Resnick, however, rescues “Memory” from the realm of classic tragedy by his optimistic and upbeat treatment, with his forceful statement that Love can be eternal and undying. That, even though the physical light may be dying, love is an eternal spark between certain people at certain times and in certain circumstances.

“Down Memory Lane” is quite an achievement, and not just a deceptively simple riff on “Flowers for Algernon.” Good writers always make what they do look easy. “Down Memory Lane” deserves all the accolades one associates with superlative fiction and I urge you to read it.

Further Reading:

“Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes is one of the most honored and oft-reprinted stories in science fiction. Here are but a few of the sources where the interested reader can find it—

The Best From Fantasy and Science Fiction, Ninth Series, ed. Robert P. Mills (Doubleday, 1959)
The Year’s Best S-F, 5th Annual Edition, ed. Judith Merril (Dell pb, 1961)
The Hugo Winners, ed. Isaac Asimov (Doubleday, 1962)
The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One (1929-1964), ed. Robert Silverberg (Doubleday, 1970. Reprinted most recently by Tor/Orb, Feb. 2005, Tpb)
The Road To Science Fiction, Volume 4: From Here To Forever, ed. James Gunn (White Wolf/Borealis, 1982)