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The Element of Science Fiction
This novel received the Nebula Award for Best Novel of the year, awarded by the Science Fiction Writers of America. Thus, it is acknowledged as a work of science fiction. Yet, one associates science fiction with aliens, outer space, conquest of or by strange creatures, or mutant insects or animals accidentally spawned by science. Here for a change, there is a story about experimental surgery for the benefit of the mentally retarded. The idea is an exciting one, so is the approach. The author does not concentrate on a technical description of the surgery or on external observation of the patient. He goes into the mind of the protagonist and tries to depict the changes in his personality.
As science fiction, the book may be disappointing. There is no delving into the procedures of surgery beyond the mention of "psychosurgery" and "enzyme-injection patterns," but the whole conception is viewed from the human angle. Another weakness is the idea that after succeeding on just one mouse, researchers would operate on a human subject.
Only at the Chicago convention is there a more specific technical discussion. Here, Nemur explains Charlieís condition as "phenyl ketonuria" resulting in defective biochemical reactions. He says, "Think of the enzyme produced by the defective gene as a wrong key which fits into the chemical lock of the central nervous system-but wonít turn. Because it's there, the true key-the right enzyme-canít even enter the lock." He explains their surgery in the following way, "we remove the damaged portions of the brain and permit the implanted brain tissue, which has been chemically revitalized to produce brain proteins at a supernormal rate..." It is at this stage that Charlie realizes that both Nemur and Strauss are entirely ignorant of the work done in their field by Indian and Japanese researchers, who are ahead of them. The reason is that they are not linguists as Charlie has become, and are complacent about work done in the West.
It is after this that, Charlie escapes and later returns to the lab with independent authority to analyze the defects in the surgery performed on him and on Algernon. He vows that "I will have lived a thousand normal lives by what I might add to others not yet born."
After this, Charlie concentrates on studying Algernonís deteriorating condition in order to come up with an explanation. Finally, he concludes that, "artificially-induced intelligence deteriorates at a rate of time directly proportional to the quantity of the increase." Thus, the novel does not depict any glorious advance in medical science, but a daring experiment which fails, and for which the protagonist suffers the consequences. How he faces his own personal tragedy is what the novel focuses on.