Posts Tagged ‘Trouble with Lichen’

In terms of the cardinal sins a book or film can commit, having a title that no-one is quite sure how to pronounce is not especially high on the list – after all, Koyaanisqatsi seems to have done pretty well for itself, along with the entirety of the Cthulhu industry. The problem only becomes acute if the title itself is not that great to begin with. Here we begin to get to the nub of the issue as it applies to John Wyndham’s Trouble with Lichen, which for all the world sounds like a placeholder title that the author never got back to. Never mind that it’s possibly the least gripping title in the history of literature – should one pronounce it to rhyme with kitchen or as a homophone of liken? (Wyndham himself offers no guidance.)

Oh well. Trouble with Lichen was originally published in 1960, by which time Wyndham himself had made his name with the four great novels he is best remembered for – The Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Wakes, The Chrysalids, and The Midwich Cuckoos – and tried his hand at some slightly more conventionally science-fictional space futurism with The Outward Urge, with arguably less success. Trouble with Lichen is something else again, being in some ways the softest of soft science fiction.

Even disregarding the fact that this is not a long novel, we’re quite a long way into the story before the SF element openly appears. The early chapters concern the progress of a brilliant young biochemist, Diana Brackley, whose combination of intelligence, beauty, and willingness to challenge social convention tends to unsettle those around her. She ends up at Darr House, a small research company run by Francis Saxover, a reserved, slightly diffident older man in the classic Wyndham mould. One day there is an accident in the lab, or perhaps one should say a serendipitous occurrence – a tiny flake of lichen, part of a batch of samples being tested for possible medical applications, falls into a saucer of milk, which is left overnight.

The next day Diana and Francis are alone in discovering that the milk has not completely turned – that in the vicinity of the lichen has been preserved. Francis says he’ll see if the lichen has antibiotic properties, but his eventual attempts to avoid the subject, not to mention a certain awkward shiftiness, leads Diana to mount her own researches.

Well, to cut to the chase, what Francis and Diana have independently stumbled upon is what Wyndham christens an antigerone – a drug which slows the ageing process. The upper limit of this is never made clear, as it partly depends on what dosage you’re on, but it’s implied that a life expectancy of three or four hundred years is entirely possible. The problem is that the lichen from which the antigerone is derived grows only in a small and remote region of Manchuria, and even if the source can be kept secret, there is only enough to provide a steady supply of the drug for a few thousand people.

Francis hides the discovery, fearful of the chaos and upheaval that will result when the antigerone becomes a fact in society; Diana hides the discovery, fearful that vested interests will conspire to suppress widespread use of the antigerone. While Saxover is content to limit use of the drug to himself and his immediate family, she is more ambitious, putting a (necessarily) long-term plan into action to ensure the arrival, and ultimate survival, of what she calls homo diuturnus – Enduring Man…

I say that Trouble with Lichen is soft science fiction, even though it is predicated on a biochemical concept. This is because the exact nature and operation of the antigerone is rather skipped over in favour of discussion, of a rather abstract kind, of its potential impact on society. The book is all about discussing what could happen, rather than showing what is happening – the whole thing feels rather like the opening movement of a much more ambitious, more epic (and rather longer) novel about an absolute phase shift in the nature of human existence.

Wyndham enjoys himself a lot with some gentle social satire about the response of various vested interests to the existence of the antigerone, when news of this inevitably leaks, but on the whole the novel is rather short on incident and the kind of vivid imagery and memorable dialogue that epitomises the Big Four. In the end, the status quo has not significantly changed.

The novel manages to glean a happy ending from the fates of the main characters, however. Another reason for thinking of this as soft SF is because… well, I’m not going to try and claim it’s written like a Mills and Boon book or some other mass-market romantic novel, but at the same time… notions of romance are more prominently featured than in anything else Wyndham wrote. In addition to his usual wry and forensic analysis of how society functions, the relationship (or lack of it) between Francis and Diana is simmering away under the surface for most of the book.

I imagine many readers will find that a bit dispiriting, for elsewhere Wyndham goes out of his way to establish that Diana is an unusually intelligent and ambitious woman, quite capable of taking care of herself and dealing with the establishment forces set against her. Presumably he felt that making her entirely self-sufficient and independent would prevent readers from sympathising with her at all (which may even have been true in 1960) – the theory being that a sympathetic female character had to be at least partly defined by her romantic interests.

This kind of links to the other thing that makes the book seem horribly dated to a modern reader. Diana’s plan is to introduce the antigerone invisibly into society, so that by the time it is discovered, a corps of influential people prepared to fight for their right to an extended lifetime already exists. Fair enough: but she does this by investing in a beauty parlour and offering women the chance to look younger for longer. The book offers some fairly astute observations on the limited social options available to women around 1960, but much of its nitty-gritty still feels dated and chauvinist. The movement of women fighting for life extension is implicitly compared to the suffragettes at more than one point, which if nothing else is simply odd.

The thing about John Wyndham’s books is that either they are too epic to easily film – this is true of three of the Big Four – or just not cinematic enough to easily adapt for the screen. Trouble with Lichen falls into the later group – and you can imagine Wyndham himself, having hit upon the (very strong) notion of the discovery of the antigerone and its potential impact on society, trying to find a way to tell a real story about it and really, really struggling. There’s a good idea at the heart of this book, but Wyndham doesn’t really find a way to turn it into a proper narrative – at least, not one which contemporary readers are likely to find completely satisfying. Definitely one of the great man’s minor works, but not without points of interest.


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