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John Wyndham writes disaster story after disaster story, before that was popular.... this one isn't so disastrous as many, but he tries his best.
The story: a brilliant young female scientist starts work for a privately run research establishment; both she and the owner independently discover, by accident, a drug which slows ageing, by varying factors. The book explores how they cope with this information, in their differing ways, and the reactions of the individuals around them, and the society they live in (England in the 1950s, really) as the news of the discovery leaks out in different ways during the following years. Oh, and they fall in love (and thats more or less the importance given in the writing itself to the love story, although of course to the characters its more important.
I love John Wyndham, but he's not a great writer. He telegraphs very strongly how his characters carry the story along, there really isn't much sense of them having a life of their own apart from the story. But the story is so good, such a cracking idea, that he can carry it off, even for someone as fussy as me about such things. Thats not bad!
I collected all of John Wyndham's books when I was in my teens. I had a Penguin edition at first, which I read so often it fell apart, and recently I found a hardback, printed back in 1962 by The Science Fiction Book Club with Michael Joseph.
He often treated women as mindless appendices, writing as he did way before the 60s - the SF films of his time will usually show women being threatened by an alien monster standing still and screaming in horror, waiting to be rescued by The Hero. But this one isn't bad at all, he's made a bit of an effort to realise that women can think too - some of the things they think about are different from the things that men think about, but thats all.
This book in particular is very understated - events unfold slowly, over years and years, by definition, and what violence there is, is not described in detail. Wyndham seems to me to be interested in ideas above all else. His characterisation is wooden, to be honest, and some of the conversations are often simply about ideas, step by step to the logical conclusion with each statement by each individual.
For all that, if I'm in the mood for a comfortable disaster read, then its John Wyndham I head for. I know that sounds a contradiction, but that what he is - comfortable disasters.
This is a review of the 2008 Penguin Edition.
'Trouble With Lichen' is a novel by John Wyndham, an author most famous for writing 'The Day Of The Triffids'. Very unfairly, Wyndham tends to only be remembered for 'Triffids' when he's actually written several other great novels in the 'dystopian fiction' vein, including 'The Kraken Wakes', 'The Midwich Cuckoos' and 'The Chrysalids', amongst others.
The story concerns young bio-chemist Diana Brackley, who whilst working at the prestigious Darr House research facility, under the leadership of Dr Francis Saxover, discovers a new potential solution to the ageing process. A chemical extracted from an unusual strain of Lichen can help to slow down ageing, leading to people being able to live potentially for 2-300 years.
Brackley and Saxover both develop their own research into the chemical after they independently discover the potential of Lichen at the same time. A small piece of Lichen is accidentally dropped into a saucer of milk meant for the cat, the following day the milk around the Lichen has not curdled. They both keep their findings a secret [including from each other] but Saxover takes the solution himself and gives it to his children, whilst Diana sets up her own beauty salon in London and dispenses the chemical secretly to her clients; all women of social importance eg: wives of politicians or Lords.
By doing this Diana feels that she will be able to safe guard the anti ageing secret from slipping into the male dominated hands of society. Thus creating a kind of future female superior race, at least until the secret is discovered. When a client of Diana's suffers from an allergic reaction to the treatment, its only a matter of time before the secret comes out and the world begins to clamour for the knowledge of how to 'live forever'.
Wyndham creates an interesting, if a little dated, story of the power of knowledge and how this can lead to paranoia and questions of morality. What would be the right thing to do in this situation?, should time be given for the rare source to be located and properly farmed?, or should humanity have the right to know about it immediately, therefore running the risk of only a few thousand people being able to benefit from it before its all run out?.
'Trouble With Lichen' would struggle to match up to a masterpiece like 'Day Of The Triffids', but it doesn't have to. Its a very respectable short novel which zips along at a great pace and was a highly enjoyable read, which I would recommend to any reader from teenagers upwards.
You can buy the book form Amazon UK for £3.30 and the recent Penguin reprint is rather fetching and its good to see Wyndham's work so nicely preserved.