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Trouble with Lichen (1960)

John Wyndham

Penguin, London; ISBN: 0-14-001986-3; Pages: 204

Review © 2003 Branislav L. Slantchev

It would be a misnomer to categorize this as science fiction even though it does concern the discovery of an anti-aging drug derived from some previously undiscovered lichen that grows in some Manchurian patches. This time around Wyndham set out to write a non too subtle social commentary, reflecting on the position of women in society first, and the potentially devastating effects of prolonging life second.

THe protagonist, Diana Brackley, is a gifted biochemist who, upon graduating from Cambridge with highest honors, begins as a research scientist at a famous lab privately run by a world-renowned scientist Dr. Saxover. All this to the horror of her mother, whose idea of life is that women are born to wed and breed. While at the lab, Diana stumbles across a discovery whose implications she fails to realize until, some time later, she begins to suspect that her boss has been holding out on her. She goes into clandestine research herself only to find out that the rare lichen retards metabolism by a factor of up to five. In other words, it slows down ageing. She ponders the implications of this "gift" to mankind for a long time and then abruptly quits her job to start her own cosmetics (beauty) company called Nefertiti, Ltd.

She keeps this stuff under wraps for over ten years and even her former boss, and now widower, has no clue about it although he has been secretly injecting his two children with the drug. Eventually, of course, things come to a head when Dr. Saxover spills the beans to his daughter and son, and his son proceeds to tell his wife whose greed seem to be her defining characteristic. Anyway, soon Britain is in social turmoil as rumors spin out of control. It turns out Diana has been using her position to create an "army" of socialite wives with very important husbands who would block any attempt to hide the discovery once it becomes known. Quite the opposite of Dr. Saxover's concern (which correctly envisions violence), she frets about people suppressing the knowledge. Anyway, her plan sort of works, and the book ends on a high note with Britons being promised the stuff by the pound, and all marching happily ever after into starvation from overpopulation and economic distress.

The book is slower, much slower, that a lot of Wyndham's better novels. There isn't much going on and the foreshadowing of events can get quickly tiresome, much like the unfinished statements in the plot. The author uses the oldest (and most reprehensible) trick in the book to keep the suspense going: he never reveals what the heck is going on. This is quite irritating, especially when he spends page after page describing Diana pondering her discovery, and being afraid of its implications... all the while without even telling us what it is that she's discovered. In the end, it is the desire to find out "facts" rather than interest in the action or the possible resolution of ethical/moral problems that keeps the story going.

Not that there isn't the potential for explosive ethical/moral/religious/social and just about any other type of conundrum one can think of. I mean, who will get to decide who lives and who dies, who will get to keep the lichen, and who will end up fighting for it. What would the implications be for the family? "Till death do us part" sounds too long when you have 200 years more to live. The economic consequences of too many living too long would be horrendous. Our entire culture is built on impatience, instant gratification, short time horizons, and making a mess that someone else will have to clean up. But what if we had to starve ourselves? What if we could not find work? What if we had to go and die fighting? What if our wives/husbands ran away with the 80-year old good-looking secretary? And what will happen to women? (Remarkably, Wyndham's version is rather tame: much less than has happened in the last three decades anyway.)

This is all good stuff but Wyndham goes nowhere with it. He just rails on and on about women not being reduced to marriage prospects. And that's it. Oh, there're some newspaper headlines trying to convey the sense of impending economic gloom, and some scattered references to talks between husbands and wives, but nothing really radical or insightful. Heinlein has had field days with material like this one. Maybe Wyndham was just too traditional-minded to come up with really radical solutions to the new problems that would be inevitably caused by over-living.

There are many plot twists that never quite get anywhere: What's up with the kidnapping Zephanie and Richard? Who? Why? The whole love story subplot according to which Diana fell in love with Dr. Saxover, pined for him at the lab, never got close to him in a decade, and then gets to spend her (long, long) years with him was a bizarre anachronistic throwback to the very same mores that Wyndham started out to criticize.

It is, of course, ironic that the wealthy get to spearhead (unwittingly) the disintegration of their comfortable existence by challenging the very foundations of society. This must have been Diana's plan all along. But that they should do so in such an oafish and rather stupid way, is unremarkable. Even worse, I am not at all sure that Diana's vision of a brave new world with a new homo eternicus is a place I want to live in. There are way too many people that live way too long as it is. Do we really want more of them? Yes, I include myself in this category.

July 22, 2003