Flowers for Big Pharma

Cliff RobertsonA classic science fiction story by Daniel Keyes was “Flowers for Algernon,” which won a Hugo award, became a novel, and then was made into the movie Charly (starring Cliff Robertson, who won an Oscar for the role in 1968.)  The story, told in diary form, follows a retarded man who is given an experimental brain operation after a mouse showed a startling improvement in intelligence following similar clinical trials.  Charly also improves to the point of genius as he follows the mouse’s trajectory, and he discovers the world of emotions and beauty and love for the first time while helping scientists with their own problems.  But then the mouse begins to decline.  To revert to its former state.  And so, very soon, will Charly.  A poignant scene in the movie is when his scientist girlfriend comes over, and suggests they get married that very night of his discovery that Algernon has died.  There is a child’s chair in one corner, and he picks it up slowly to sit in front of her.  He has seen the scorn which people reserve for the retarded, and now he understands what will happen to him again soon.  When his girlfriend says she’ll stay as long as he wants…that she’ll leave on whatever day he decides she should, he asks her to leave now.  The story is even more effective.  The very sentences which Charly at first constructed begin to return with their missed punctuation, simple words, and lapses in reasoning.  By the time we reach the end, and it relates to putting flowers on Algernon’s grave, we see that Charly has come full circle.  Daniel Keyes, in accepting his award from a more famous SF writer, was asked how he came up with such an effective story, and he responded, “I don’t know, but I wish you would tell me because I want to do it again.”  
    Inspiration is mysterious, but when the story and the voice for telling it come together wonderful things can happen.  It is not just a matter of formula or craft, it is also a magical confluence of idea, theme, and allowing the characters to breathe.  More than anything, though, it is relating a story that has to be told.  When not telling that story is harder than actually telling it.  And that takes instinct, developed through experience, along with something important to say.  This is also why most young Hollywood producer/writers (with nothing to say themselves) get it wrong, as when they butchered Harlan Ellison’s story “A Boy and His Dog” for the screen, adding a cute one-liner at the end which was like a twist of the knife into Ellison’s gut.  Imagine having Rhett Butler, instead of saying “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” (before walking away) dance a little jig and sing, “I gots ta go, well don’t ya know…but I hopes yall enjoyed dis here damn show!”  (Ellison is a longtime critic of the influence of TV, and author of “The Glass Teat.”)
    My own homage to the Keyes story is this one, about two mice who exchange intelligence with a TV addicted bachelor who thinks their antics are being produced by his deceased ex wife.  The mice get smarter as he watches more TV (and so gets dumber.)  In the movie version of Charly there’s a scene when a scientist asks him what he thinks about the future of education, and he replies, “A TV in every room.”  They laugh, but Charly doesn’t.  He thinks it’s sad, not funny.  So do I.
    In my novel The Methuselah Gene a pharmaceutical giant is suspected of conducting secret clinical trials on the residents of a small town in Iowa.  What’s being tested doesn’t relate to intelligence, but longevity.  And, of course, the protagonist is himself a guinea pig in another way, on his own in uncovering the truth.  It has been reported recently that major drug companies go to India to test drugs on poor people, who are more willing to risk their health for money.  The trials are required by the FDA, and it’s cheaper to farm out the studies there, just as it’s cheaper to outsource call center operations to India.  Even more surprising, many of the doctors involved in conducting and analyzing data from these tests have as their motive profitability, not accuracy.  Some “doctors” are not even legitimate experts or doctors.  So, in a way, Big Pharma (as it’s called) view us–the market–as being comprised of Charlys.  To them, we are all named Charly.  Meaning if only they air enough commercials for a pill claiming to cure a disease they sometimes invent (to fit the cure), consumers will all fall in line at the drug store to buy it.  And if there are side effects?  Well, then it’s (you guessed it:) “Sorry, Charly.”

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