TWO BRITISH scientists, Doctor Francis Saxover and his talented employee Diana Brackley, discover a rare species of lichen from East Asia that can dramatically slow down the ageing process, and potentially treble life-expectancy. They can keep the secret of Lichenin for only so long, and it soon becomes obvious that the new wonder is not universally welcomed. There are vested interests in the form of big industry, trade unions, political parties, and many conservative thinking men. There is also the question of who should control the distribution of the life-lengthening serum, and whether it will primarily benefit the rich. The race is on to develop a synthetic antigerone, with knowledege becoming a dangerous commodity.
Diana and Grace
Of all Wyndham’s works, the subject matter of The Trouble with Lichen is the closest to his heart. Unbeknownst to many of his associates, Wyndham was romantically involved with school teacher Grace Wilson from the 1930s onwards. She was an independent lady unprepared to sacrifice her career to domesticity and child-rearing. Her wishes were respected by Wyndham but ‘Lichen’ is largely an exploration of what a might have been, if women could have reproductive longevity. There may well have been a cross over between the real-life Grace and the fictional Diana Brackley.
Romance is at the heart of Trouble with Lichen, as the chief male character Francis Saxover is the object of Diana's affection. However the death of Caroline Saxover has left a huge mark on her widowed husband, who seems largely oblivious to the attentions of his young admirer. The love aspect is perhaps not the strongest element of the book, but as Diana herself states, the discovery of the lichen has made age gaps less relevant.
The pace of The Trouble with Lichen is not akin to Triffids or Chrysalids, but there is much food for thought. It is still poignant in a world where many in developing countries are denied access to medicinal drugs for various reasons, where the traditional role of men is being challenged, and the population is ever increasing. Given Wyndham’s track record in prescience, it is hardly surprising that he wrote such a novel on the eve of the Feminist movement’s inception. Although it is a touch ironic that the lead female character at first uses her secret discovery to set up the exclusive Nefertiti beauty parlour.
Lichen has a different feel to the average Wyndham novel. Despite the two leading characters being scientists, it is probably the least 'Science Fiction' of all his major works. Wyndham could have extended this into the next few centuries but decided to explore the impact on contemporary society, as it grasps some of the implications. There are moments of peril, for example the kidnap of two of the characters, yet it is certainly not an edge-of-the-seat read. The Trouble with Lichen has been produced as a radio series, including a 21st century version produced by BBC Radio Four Extra, but has yet to be developed for television or cinema.
Passage from Trouble with Lichen
Diana reached for a cigarette, rapped it, and regarded it thoughtfully for a moment.
'All right,' she said. 'Half-knowledge is precarious, anyway. I'd better begin at the beginning.' She lit a cigarette, and started from the time Francis brought in the saucer of milk, and the consequences.
'So, legally,' she concluded, I'm in the wrong, though morally, I've just as much right to it as your father has, but never mind about that now. The point is that where both of us got stuck was the handling of it. It took me some time to realize how stuck I was. I thought I'd soon see a way out, but then the more I thought about it the more difficulties there were. And it was only then that I began to understand just how important it was.
'I couldn't see a way of dealing with it at all - and then something you said suddenly put me on the track.'
'Something I said?' Zephanie repeated.
'Yes. We were talking about women being diddled, you remember?'
'I remember. It was rather a theme of yours,' Zephanie said, with a smile.
'It still is,' Diana told her. 'But that time you said you'd mentioned it to one of your teachers, and she'd said we must do our best to live in the circumstances we found because life was too short to put the world to rights, or words to that effect.'
'I'm not sure I do remember that.'
'Well, that was the gist of it. Of course it had been in my mind all along, in a way. What we've really found, your father and I, is a step in evolution, a kind of synthetic evolution - and the only evolutionary advance by man in a million years. It is going to change the whole of future history completely. Oh yes, I'd realized that if life weren't so short it would be worth people's while to do more to put the world to rights. But, when you said it as you did, I suddenly saw, in a kind of flash, how it could be put across.'
'Put across?' Zephanie said in a bewildered tone.
'Yes. I saw how women could be started on longer lives without even knowing it, at first. Later on, they would find out, and by that time I hoped there would be enough of them, and enough of the right kind, to wield influence. What was necessary was somehow to collect a group of people - any group of people - convince them that extended life was practicable, and make them fight for the acceptance of homo superior. And, suddenly, I saw how to do it. People who have been given long-life are not going to renounce it. They are going to fight hard for their right to retain it.'
Zephanie frowned a little.
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