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Keyes, Daniel

Entry updated 13 May 2024. Tagged: Author, Editor.

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(1927-2014) US author and university lecturer in English. He began his sf career as associate editor of Marvel Science Fiction (see Marvel Science Stories), February-November 1951, and began publishing work of genre interest in that magazine with "Precedent" in 1952. He is known mainly for one excellent novel, Flowers for Algernon (April 1959 F&SF; exp 1966), winner of a 1960 Hugo in its magazine form and of a 1966 Nebula for the full-length book version; the book was filmed as Charly (1968) and has also been adapted into other media, including Radio, stage and Television versions; for further details of the many adaptations, see Flowers for Algernon. It is arguably the most popular sf novel ever published, partly because it has been very widely taught in schools, despite controversy aroused by its inclusion of some Sex as the protagonist matures; it has remained constantly in print since 1966, in more than one language. Something over five million copies have been sold.

Flowers for Algernon is the story, in his own words (largely in epistolary form), of Charlie Gordon, a man in early middle age who longs to improve himself, though his IQ is 68 (see Intelligence). Like the Mouse Algernon, who has already been experimented upon, Charlie's intelligence is artificially increased to genius level (see Medicine; Superman), a process exhilaratingly narrated through a sequence of Conceptual Breakthroughs. The mouse Algernon has preceded him in this course, but Algernon soon dies, and Gordon's main contribution to science is his working out of the "Algernon-Gordon Effect", by which "artificially induced intelligence deteriorates at a rate of time directly proportional to the quantity of the increase". Even before this point, however, the tale has explored Charlie's profound sense of estrangement in a world of normal humans, his embitterment being registered in terms reminiscent of the anguish of the Frankenstein Monster; and the last pages of the novel, detailing in Charlie's own words the loss of his faculties, are extremely moving. His treatment as an object of scientific curiosity throughout his ordeal underlines the book's points about deficiencies in the scientific method as applied to human beings. In a late memoir, Algernon, Charlie and I: A Writer's Journey (2000), Keyes describes the composition of the tale, and its personal consequences to his own life.

It was very much to Keyes's credit that far from being an opportunist about further sales, he consistently and successfully defended the integrity of the original story and novel by insisting that all adaptations must follow the original narrative arc. Many potential adaptations – including the original novel version – had depended on his acceptance of replacing the ending with a happier outcome. (The novel was first bought by Doubleday, but Keyes returned the advance when Doubleday remained obdurate about not accepting his downbeat ending.) The proposed new ending usually involved Charlie marrying Alice, who had been his teacher at the beginning of the tale. Such proposed endings were invariably – and absolutely correctly – vetoed by Keyes.

Most of Keyes's subsequent career bypassed sf. The Touch (1968; vt The Contaminated Man 1977), a borderline-sf tale about the psychological consequences of an industrial accident involving radioactive contamination, has received relatively little attention. The Fifth Sally (1980), again borderline, deals with abnormal Psychology; and The Asylum Prophecies (2009) comes close to sf through its depiction of a mentally ill girl who may know how to foil the next great early twenty-first-century terrorist attack, and who may actually be able to talk with her dead sister.

Keyes did not resent the fact that he remained famous almost exclusively for his first book. In 1997, at the wedding of Dede Weil (see Ellen R Weil) and Gary K Wolfe at the annual Conference of the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, he strewed flowers. In 2000 he was honoured by SFWA as Author Emeritus (see SFWA Grand Master Award). [JC/PN]

see also: Aliens; Cinema; Labyrinths; The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction; Nuclear Energy.

Daniel Keyes

born New York: 9 August 1927

died Boca Raton, Florida: 15 June 2014




Billy Milligan

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