Friday, 16 December 2011

John Wyndham: The Trouble with Lichen (1960)

John Wyndham's most famous books, The Day of the Triffids and The Midwich Cuckoos (filmed as Village of the Damned) are fairly serious stories of disasters, a theme also followed in The Kraken Wakes. The Trouble with Lichen, a later novel, is not quite in the same line, being an examination of the negative social consequences of a scientific discovery which initially seems to be a great boon to the human race. There is also a fair amount of arch and faintly satirical humour, more apparent here than in the earlier novels (even if touches of it can be discerned).

The central characters of The Trouble with Lichen are two biochemists, newly graduated Diana Brackley and the head of the research company at which she finds work, Francis Saxover. While working on a collection of lichen samples from an expedition to the Far East, Diana serendipitously discovers that one of the samples prevents milk from turning, in a narrative directly lifted from the story of Alexander Fleming's discovery of penicillin. She and Francis work on this independently, and discover that the lichen does not in fact contain the expected antibiotic agent, but instead acts to slow down the aging process, acting well enough to give a human being a life expectancy of maybe 200 years.

The problems, when they think them through, turn out to be many and complex. Firstly, the lichen is only found in one small area, so the supply is extremely limited, only enough to treat around a thousand people. Then there are the social issues: what happens when there is no "natural wastage" to speak of, so that two hundred years of active life will be spent in a job which is a dead end, as the senior people will effectively never retire? Or when there is no chance of inheritance, or when the world becomes overcrowded?

Some of these problems are much more in the air than they were in the early sixties, as populations age (especially in the West) and the number of people in the world reaches seven billion (from about three billion when the The Trouble with Lichen was published). As a science fictional exploration of the issues, it is as relevant now as it was in 1960, if not more so. Many countries are reacting to these problems now - by redefining what retirement means and when it starts, for example. But in The Trouble with Lichen this is emphasised rather less than some of the other issues, and it is the over-arching theme of the double-edged nature of scientific and technical advances which really resonates today, in the age of global warming.

Wyndham starts with a prologue describing Diana's funeral, so the reader knows that the novel will not all be cheerful, but he ends on a positive note, as his novels usually do. Like many science fiction writers of his generation, he seems to have been convinced that human ingenuity will be able to solve any problem, even ones which have been caused through science and technology. As in, say, The Day of the Triffids, the upbeat nature of the ending is dependent on hard work over many years, and Wyndham is unable or unwilling to suggest solutions to many of the problems he raises. They are hard issues, so this is not particularly surprising; nor is it necessarily a bad thing, as ideas produced by science fiction writers over fifty years ago are quite likely to seem naive in 2011, no matter how seriously intended at the time.

Of Wyndham's novels, this is the only one which I can recall as having a major female character who is not basically a wife and companion to the man who is the main centre of attention. This is probably more because the nature of the discovery lends itself to the idea of the use of the beauty industry to exploit but at the same time hide the discovery of the properties of the lichen than from any conversion to feminism by the author. After all, the campaign she mounts after the lichen becomes public knowledge is based on the use of her clients as the wives of important figures, rather than on any importance they might hold in their own right. The UK in 2011 may still have a male dominated establishment (just look at the Cabinet, or the board of any large bank), but I think that today's reader would probably expect some at least of these women to have important careers of their own, rather than having no role other than that of wife and mother.

Old fashioned, but still in many ways relevant; well written with touches of humour, The Trouble with Lichen is an excellent novel which deserves to be as well known as Wyndham's most famous works - 8/10.

Edition: Penguin, 1963
Review number: 1436

No comments: