Trouble with Lichen by John Wyndham
Published in 1960, John Wyndham’s Trouble with Lichen tells the story of Diana Brackley, a revolutionary, a feminist, and a scientist.
Diana is considered odd because although she is attractive, she does not want to marry. Instead, she is dedicated to her career in the lab, and it is there that she makes her amazing discovery: a type of lichen that slows the aging process. Diana decides to use the lichen to empower women, and she sets up a beauty clinic that caters to rich and influential women (more often, unfortunately, women who are married to rich and influential men). Her goal is to create a class of powerful women who will shield her project and her dreams against the public when it learns of her discovery and demands control over it.
Diana’s plan to share her lichen with only a few may seem odd, but she has not yet figured out a way to reproduce the lichen for everyone. She is also concerned about some of the difficulties posed by an extended life expectancy. Can marriages really last over a century? Will anyone with a middle-management-or-lower job really want to live for several additional decades? (I’m not sure, by the way, which question we should find more depressing.)
Interesting ideas, odd questions, and unexpected conflicts are the best part of John Wyndham’s novels — and it doesn’t hurt that his stories are so short that even if the plot is weak, the reader loses only a little time. Ironically, the weakness of Trouble with Lichen is that it’s so short that it doesn’t have time to develop into something more memorable. The plot begins at its climax, Diana’s death, and much of the novel is written almost like a documentary (or, worse, an outline) of Diana’s decisions. There is little suspense surrounding Diana’s otherwise intriguing discovery, perhaps because Diana, the novel’s most memorable character, is given too little time on center stage. In fairness, Diana is this novel’s hero but she is also its mastermind, so it’s difficult for Wyndham to tell the story from her point of view without spoiling the plot.
Still, I sometimes found myself wondering what Robert Charles Wilson or Michael Crichton might have done with this story. I suppose both would have included more interesting character conflicts. Perhaps the world would change more in response to the lichen if Wilson wrote the story. Maybe Crichton would have invested more in the corporate and political intrigue caused by the discovery. This is Wyndham’s novel, of course, and he can write it however he likes. Still, thoughts of other stories that might have been told about the lichen often kept me from focusing on the page.
Wyndham’s stories stand out because they critique restrictive social norms and question the value of tradition. This novel is no different. Although the story did not pull me in, it did keep me guessing all the way to the end. Ultimately, I wouldn’t recommend readers new to John Wyndham’s work to start with Trouble with Lichen, but I also wouldn’t recommend those who’ve read his other works to avoid it.
By 1960, British sci-fi author John Wyndham was popularly known as the creator of what Brian W. Aldiss would later call “cosy catastrophes,” largely by dint of a quartet of highly successful novels from the previous decade. The Day of the Triffids (’51) had dealt with walking, malevolent plants and a world gone blind following a meteor storm; The Kraken Wakes (’53) had told of an alien invasion from the oceanic depths; The Chrysalids (’55) had described a post-apocalyptic world, and the puritanical society that had arisen in its wake; while The Midwich Cuckoos (’57) had treated of a group of youngsters with alien-enhanced abilities. His 1960 offering, Trouble with Lichen, however, dealt not so much with cataclysms and inimical life-forms from the stars, but rather, with the societal upheaval that ensues after the announcement of the discovery of a life-prolongation substance. The book was initially released as a hardcover by the British publishing firm Michael Joseph; I was fortunate enough to have recently acquired the American, 35-cent Ballantine paperback from that same year of release. As it turns out, the book is another unqualified success for Wyndham, if a tad drier than those other four titles just mentioned. A very British affair, it still holds great appeal for an international audience, and aside from a few passing references, feels not a bit dated, despite being 57 years old as of this writing.
As Ryan mentioned above, in the book, the reader encounters a young woman, mainly via flashback, named Diana Brackley, whose funeral we witness in the opening pages. We later learn that Diana was a Cambridge graduate and a gifted biochemist, who had begun working at the chemical manufacturing plant established by one Professor Francis Saxover. After eight months on the job, Diana had noticed the strange effect that a spot of experimental lichen had shown in a saucer of milk. Independently of one another, and doing separate investigations in private, Diana and Saxover had each discovered a startling fact: This strain of lichen, which only grows in one small area of Manchuria, has the ability to slow the metabolic rate in an organism, and to retard the aging process! It is estimated that, depending on the purity and strength of administered doses, an age of 200 – 300 years could easily be reached by those people treated with it! The reactions of the two scientists are quite different, although both deem it wisest to keep this bombshell news from the general public. Francis treats himself and (secretly) his immediate family with the lichen, while Diana quits her job, opens up a high-toned beauty shop in London’s posh Mayfair district, and treats herself and (secretly) several hundred wealthy, influential and well-connected women, whose aid she will probably need when the secret of the “antigerone” (as she calls her discovery) is eventually revealed. And after a nice run of 14 years, that secret does indeed come to light, resulting in society-shattering repercussions…
The astute reader will notice that Wyndham did not name his book THE Trouble with Lichen (as might normally have been expected); such a title would of course have suggested a single solitary problem. And the troubles that the big reveal of the antigerone’s existence causes are indeed manifold. One would think that such a discovery — the Fountain of Youth, the alchemist’s Elixir of Life, realized at last — would be hailed as a modern-day miracle blessing by the world’s populace, but as the author shows us, such might not necessarily be the case. Thus, there are troubled discussions of what might happen to the institution of marriage, when faced with a “till death do us part” vow that could last for three centuries. (We see this dilemma most starkly through the eyes of Francis’ daughter, Zephanie, and her fiancé Richard.) At one point, Diana even wonders if the concept of “wife” might not soon be outmoded, to be replaced by the more practical “companion.” Diana later ponders whether or not the current school system will be sufficient to prepare a child for a 300-year span. And what of the life insurance companies, which might soon be paying out annuities for many hundreds of years? And eventually, of course, the Church puts its two cents (or rather, pence) in, declaring it an abomination for the scientists to give mankind more than the “three score years and ten” spoken of in the 9th Psalm. And then the morticians start making noise about being put out of business, and the Russians declare that they have discovered the magical lichen first, and the Chinese move to seize the Manchurian wonder drug for themselves, and the conservative British papers start wailing about the unemployment and starvation guaranteed to follow, and … as you can see, there surely are more troubles than anyone could have imagined, following the announcement of the miracle substance, and Wyndham takes the time, in his densely written, compact book, to explore many of the ramifications.
Modern-day readers of Trouble with Lichen, especially women readers, may be gratified to observe how nicely feminist the author was here, in his penultimate published novel. Diana is shown to be not only beautiful, but something of a genius; always hatching long-range plans for the future, and always with Plans B and C up her well-tailored sleeve. Through her, Wyndham gave the reader some then-novel ideas on a woman’s place in society. Thus:
…being just a woman and nothing else does strike me as one of the dead-end jobs. You can’t get any promotion in it — not unless you take it up as a courtesan…
The greatest enemies of women aren’t men at all, they are women: silly women, lazy women, and smug women. Smug women are the worst; their profession is being women, and they just hate any women who make any other kind of professional success…
What I don’t like about us is our readiness to be conditioned — the easy way we can be made to be willing to be nothing better than squaws and second-class citizens, and taught to go through life as appendages instead of as people in our own right…
For such enlightened statements as these, Trouble with Lichen is worthy of any modern reader’s approbation.
The book, of course, is hardly a perfect affair. As I mentioned, it is a bit dry, essentially humorless and, unavoidably, a bit dated in some instances (for example, the reference to the British newspaper The Chronicle, which folded in 1960, and to the Russian newspaper Izvestia, which ceased publishing in 1991). Much of the dialogue feels overwritten, especially that between Diana and Saxover, but I suppose that two bona fide geniuses just might be expected to converse in such a manner. Several plot points — such as the matter of Saxover’s daughter-in-law stealing the antigerone secret — just peter out, never to be heard of again. And the book really is awfully talky; this reader could have done with a few more exciting sequences, such as the one in which Zephanie (is that really a name, by the way?) and her fiancé are kidnapped and coerced to spill information regarding her father’s discovery. But basically, Trouble with Lichen is a novel of ideas, and of the effects on society of one of the greatest scientific discoveries of the age. Fortunately, Wyndham keeps his story moving at a brisk clip, and even reserves for his readers a wonderful surprise ending of sorts. And in this year of 2017, in which the very notions of science, facts and research are being denigrated and pooh-poohed by so many, how nice to come across a book with this telling statement about the matter … and from the British prime minister, no less:
…if you turn your face away from Science, she will land you a mule’s kick on your backside.
I dunno, it sounds intriguing!
I like the Dilbert-like cover artwork. I tried Day of the Triffids and Midwich Cuckoos, but couldn’t get into the stories much. So very British, even when he criticizes social norms.