Trouble With Lichen – John Wyndham (1960)
‘It was Diana Brackley who put the milk out for the cat; who dropped a speck of lichen in it by mistake; who noticed how the lichen stopped the milk turning.
But it was Francis Saxover, the famous biochemist, who carried on from there; who developed Antigerone, the cure for ageing; who then tried to suppress a discovery which was certainly in the megaton range.
And so it was Diana Brackley who went to town with Antigerone in one of Wyndham’s gayest most satirical forays into the fantastic.’
Blurb from the 1969 Penguin paperback edition
This late novel from Wyndham says far more about British Society in the late Nineteen Fifties than it does about its central premise – longevity. As is common for Wyndham, the characters are for the most part very polite Middle Class English people who speak with erudite lucidity and who inhabit a world which seems both alien and quaint from our current perspective.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this book is hardly ever mentioned in connection with Wyndham’s previous work, the three classic novels (‘The Day of The Triffids’, ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’ and ‘The Chrysalids’) which turned him into a cult writer for generations of readers, and which crossed readership boundaries in that they were read and enjoyed by many readers who would not otherwise have been seen dead reading SF literature.
The basic premise surrounds the discovery of a lichen, found only in Manchuria, whose singular property retards the normal metabolic process, and thus can extend the expected lifespan to upwards of two hundred years.
When the two main characters (Diana Brackley and Francis Saxover), independently discover the properties of the lichen, their results are suppressed once they have considered the consequences to the world. Diana leaves her employment with Saxover, having kept from him her knowledge of the discovery of the lichen’s properties. She subsequently sets up a Beauty Salon under the name Nefertiti, where she injects her clients with extract of the lichen and so holds back the march of time for several hundred women.
Ten years on, various factors combine to leak the secret into the public domain and Wyndham examines the various reactions to the news from the point of view of the media, the Church and the government, as well as examining, albeit briefly, the consequences of lifespans covering centuries rather than decades.
Sadly, the novel is an anticlimax from the writer who gave us such rich food for thought in his earlier work. On the one hand it attempts to create in-depth characters who live too briefly on the page for us to appreciate them. There is Lady Tewley for instance, who came to Nefertiti as a naïve young woman, newly married into the aristocracy, and who has been subsequently transformed into a formidable member of her new class.
On the other hand this is contrasted with the effect on society, not of Antigerone itself – as the extract is called – but of the news of its existence. The novel reads like a first draft. It takes far too long to get round to examining the consequences of such a discovery and when the news is finally out one feels that Wyndham does not dig deep enough into what is obviously a rich field of possibility.
What is interesting about ‘Trouble With Lichen’ is that Wyndham sees longevity as a tool of emancipation, something which will free women from spending most of their life bringing up the next generation, and it is to his credit that he has peopled this book with assertive intelligent women, such as Diana herself and the formidable Lady Tewley. There is discussion within the novel of humanity evolving into a new longer-lived species, but one can’t help feeling that there is a subtext – particularly at this point in time – of a new species of women emerging, evolving and adapting to the changing times.