conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
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A few weeks after graduating from Brooklyn College with a bachelor's
degree in psychology, Daniel Keyes took a job with Magazine
Management, a pulp periodical outfit run by Martin Goodman—best
known as the founder of Marvel Comics. Most of Keyes early efforts at
storytelling came via his work for various comic books, back before
the field got rebranded as graphic novels and gained a patina of

In the early 1950s, Keyes learned the trade under
the guidance of Stan Lee, perhaps the greatest
visionary in the comic book field. Lee, he later
recalled, was "a lanky, shy young man who kept
pretty much to himself." But Lee read the plot
outlines submitted by his staff writers, and would
decide which ideas warranted development into
a script, with dialogue and panel-by-panel

At this stage in his career, Keyes was specializing
in science fiction, fantasy and horror stories for Atlas
Comics, a precursor of Marvel. During this period,
Keyes came up with an unconventional story idea, which he sketched out
in a single-paragrph synopsis:

The first guy in the test to raise the I.Q. from a low normal 90 to genius
level…He goes through the experience, and then is thrown back to what
he was…he is no brighter than he was before, but having had a sample
of light, he can never be the same. The pathos of a man who knows what
it is to be brilliant and to know that he can never again have the things he
tasted for the first time, including a brilliant, beautiful woman he fill in love
with and with he whom he can no longer have any contact.

Keyes knew that this plot had potential, but he
finally decided not to share it with his boss.
"I didn’t submit it to Stan Lee because something
told me it should be more than a comic book
script. I knew I would do it someday after I learned
how to write." That was probably the correct
decision, but just imagine if Keyes had gone the
Marvel comic book route, and now had his story
getting the merchandising push enjoyed by Spider
Man, Captain America and The Fantastic Four?  
Maybe we’d have a new Charlie Gordon blockbuster
film every summer? Okay, maybe not….

Keyes continued to refine the story idea over the next few years,
considering different protagonists—maybe an ex-con, or perhaps a
working class plumber's assistant, or a lovelorn bachelor.  Finally in
1957, while teaching English to students with learning disabilities,
Keyes was struck by the efforts of the more ambitious to surmount their
handicaps and develop their skills. By the time he started work in
earnest on "Flowers for Algernon," he had a clear vision of his hero,
a janitor named Charlie Gordon, with an I.Q. of 68—chosen as a
test subject for a new surgical procedure that enhances intelligence.
The treatment had already proven its efficacy with a mouse, named
Algernon, and now Gordon would be the first human to undergo it.

Keyes approached
Galaxy magazine with the finished story, but
editor Herbert Gold wanted a more upbeat ending. Keyes refused
and instead sold "Flowers for Algernon" to
The Magazine of Fantasy
& Science Fiction
, where it appeared in the April 1959 issue.

This short story had an amazing after-life. Keyes earned a Hugo
award (for best short story) the following year. In 1961, the story
was turned into a television broadcast, "The Two Worlds of Charlie
Gordon." In 1966, Keyes published a longer, novel-sized version
Flowers for Algernon, and it won the Nebula in 1967. In 1968,
the novel got turned into the Hollywood movie
Charly, starring Cliff
Robertson, and was the 16th highest-grossing film of the year.  
The novel would eventually get translated into 27 languages and
sell some 5 million copies. For many years, Keyes' novel was frequently
assigned as required reading in high school and college classrooms.

Keyes deserved every bit of this success. There are many things to
admire in
Flowers for Algernon. Let's start with the plot itself, which
set off a whole series of later sci-fi stories about intelligence
enhancement—see, for example,
"Understand" by Ted Chiang and
Camp Concentration by Thomas Disch. In the sci-fi field, new story
types are rarer than black holes, with the vast majority of tales falling
into well-known categories (space opera, time travel, first contact with
aliens, genetic experiments gone bad, etc. etc.) that are worked and
over-worked. Keyes invented a new one, and earns our admiration for
his creativity and boldness.

But Keyes achieved an even more significant breakthrough with
for Algernon
. He showed that science fiction could be character-driven,
and that even genre readers would respond to a story that focused on the
pathos of the protagonist, and the psychological underpinnings of the
narrative. This is real boldness, and Keyes' breakthrough is all the more
stunning when one considers that the clever technology angle in his story
would have been sufficient, given the expectations of the pulp fiction market
of his day, to make a sale and please the sci-fi audience. Keyes wisely
understood that the hook in his story wasn't the science, but the personal
tragedy of Charlie Gordon. Even today, more than a half-century after
"Flowers for Algernon" first appeared in print, it still strikes us as fresh
and forward-looking.  And for a very good reason: few science fiction
authors have learned its lessons. Character-driven sci-fi is still a great rarity.

Keyes' decision to present his story in the form of a first-person journal
was critical to the work’s impact and longevity. But this choice also
posed challenges. Keyes had to change his prose style every few
paragraphs to match the changing mental horizons of his narrator.  
Here, for example, is the opening passage of
Flowers for Algernon:

progris riport 1 march 3

Dr Strauss says I shoud rite down what I think and remembir and
evrey thing that happins to me from now on. I dont no why but he
says its importint so they will see if they can use me. I hope they
use me becaus Miss Kinnian says mabye they can make me
smart. I want to be smart….

But 80 pages later, we encounter:

I told Strauss that I was too involved in thinking, reading, and digging
into myself, trying to understand who and what I am, and that writing
was such a slow process it made me impatient to get my ideas down.
I followed his  suggestion that I learn to type, and now that I can type
nearly seventy-five  words a minute, it's easier to get it all down on
paper.  Strauss again brought up my need to speak and write simply
and directly so that people will understand me. He reminds me that
language is sometimes a barrier instead of a pathway. Ironic to find
myself on the other side of the intellectual fence….

Make no mistake, this author may have started out working within the
constraints of comic books, but by this point in his development as a
writer he had grasped the nuances of the best literary fiction. Because
he never matched the success of this early work with his later books,
many consider Daniel Keyes a one-hit-wonder, a pulp fiction writer
who had perhaps a lucky break with his one big seller. But, as Keyes
demonstrates on page after page in this work, luck had nothing to
do with it.

Yet there’s sad irony in the fact that Keyes' own career followed the
arc of his most famous protagonist. He rose from the least respectable
form of commercial narrative, the comic book, and climbed the heights
of literary fiction, but couldn't sustain it. By the end of his life he had
returned to writing pulp fiction thrillers, and probably wondering, much
as did Charlie Gordon, at the strange reversals of his career.

One final note: I would suggest that readers go back to the original
short story, and start with its pristine vision of Charlie Gordon, and
only then move on to the novel and film. The book-long treatment is
a powerful work, but I still prefer the original magazine tale. It ranks
among the best shorter works of mid-20th century American fiction,
and its virtues should not be obscured by the subsequent success
of the novel and film.  

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. His next book, a history of
love songs, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

Publication date: August 12, 2014
Flowers for Daniel Keyes (1927-2014)

By Ted Gioia
Daniel Keyes' career
followed the arc of his
most famous protagonist.
He rose from the least
respectable form of
commercial narrative, the
comic book, and climbed
the heights of literary fiction
...yet couldn't sustain it.
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites
The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter


SF Site
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction
Tor blog

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