|Zephanie and Paul learning about the lichen|
Trouble with Lichen is a book ahead of its time, like so many of Wyndham's books. The Women's Movement, while beginning many decades prior to the publication of this book with the suffragettes, didn't really coalesce into a popular movement until the late 60s, early 70s - and the book was first published in 1960. However, Wyndham's chief female protagonist, Dianna Brackley, is a feminist well and truly before the label was first applied to women of her ilk who were intelligent, well-educated, career focused and concerned about losing themselves in the conditioned and conditioning environment of marriage as it was seen at the time. When she graduates from Cambridge as a biochemist, she takes a job at the prestigious, private research company, Darr House Developments. When she and the director, Francis Saxover, serendipitously discover properties in a lichen that slows down metabolic development, they realise they have potentially stumbled on the holy grail of science - a means of extending people's lifespan.
They make their discoveries independently - both unaware that the other is working on the lichen. Dianna eventually discovers Francis' lab mice, but continues to keep her work secret. It is never really spelled out, but Dianna is in love with Francis, although he - particularly in the wake of the death of his wife - is oblivious of the fact. When Dianna comes into a legacy from her grandfather, she leaves Darr House and no one hears of her for many years.
When she does resurface it is to contact Francis with a warning that they may be about to be exposed. Fourteen years have passed since their initial discovery. Both of them have been working hard on a potential synthetic version of the active component without success, as supplies of the lichen itself are extremely limited. Both have wrestled with the explosive potential of such a discovery. Francis has done nothing - other than to administer it to himself and his two children, Paul and Zephanie, who he now has to tell.... Dianna, on the other hand, in a random conversation with young Zephanie years before at Darr House, had an epiphany about why it might be important to be able to extend life - beyond the obvious self-seeking reasons - and how to go about it. It taps back into her feelings about how little time women had available, if they lived a traditional life, to fit everything in - possible extra education and professional training, interrupted by babies and bringing up children, and then possibly being able to get back to their previous profession albeit with lost time in between, and then limited time at that point to continue developing long enough to do something useful before old age hits. She feels that if they are given time, time to spend really working on things that matter - as she assumes people will if they are no longer just achieve various milestones for the sake of achieving milestones; if they have more time to follow through and properly develop ideas, theories and, ultimately, actions.
She sets up an exclusive beauty salon, advertising, as all beauty salons do, treatments to 'take away the appearance of age' - only in her case, her treatments are retarding the aging process, quite literally. Her clientele are highly placed wives, daughters and close contacts of politicians, businessmen, and high-powered members of the gentry - women who will have the means to fight for continuation of their treatment once they know about it and understand the long-term ramifications.
When it all breaks loose, there is the predictable media circus, railings from religious fundamentalists and, more sinisterly, violent attempts to wrest the information from those discovered to be close to the source - Zephanie and her boyfriend, Richard, are kidnapped and tortured, eventually disclosing what they know. Darr House is set on fire twice, the second time being destroyed entirely and almost killing Francis. Dianna masterminds a coordinated counter-attack via the media and using loyal staff members to plant information and introduce red herrings.
|Zephanie and Richard kidnapped|
In her final public act, she is assassinated on the steps of her apartment building, in full view of a large crowd. At the funeral, the first coordinated appearance of her league of women indicates that they are organised and ready to mobilise. There's a lovely twist, which I won't disclose. As Peter will tell you in his review - Penguin has re-released the Wyndham books, so I encourage those of you who have yet to make his acquaintance to go shopping soon!
Ultimately, the thing that stands out for me from this story, is the gender politics. Primarily that it was a man writing a story with a strong feminist message before the bulk of feminist literature, fueled by the Women's Movement, really took off. It's a great, thought provoking story that offers plenty of scope for discussions on all sorts of levels - from the feminist angle, to issues about extending how long we live, population issues on an already overcrowded, depleted and damaged planet, and even - if you want to play with this - what genre this book truly belongs to. None of those foci can take away from Wyndham's ability to spin a wonderful, engaging yarn. However, having said that, I don't think it's possible to read it without being very aware that there are strong political issues and messages embedded in the narrative. They hold up just as well now as they did at the time of publication, which is one of my strongest recommendations to the uninitiated to read Wyndham - he may be vintage, but the man was spookily modern!
|Dianna's last broadcast|