Sunday, 10 June 2012

The Trouble with Lichen - John Wyndham

The re-reading continues... This was next on my hit list of my Wyndham collection and I just read a fellow blogger's review on his blog, which tickled my brain so I thought I'd better get on with it. This is the lone non-Penguin edition within my Wyndhams. My copy is a hardcover published by Hutchinson Educational, clearly for the student market, and has four wonderful 60s illustrations which I'll include throughout.
Zephanie and Paul learning about the lichen
This is, as Peter says in his review, a curious novel to find within the SF genre - which is where it sits, given the rest of Wyndham's output. However, as I wrote in my recent post on The Chrysalids,  a characteristic of Wyndham's books is his focus on the human condition. I've re-read Chocky in between The Chrysalids and Trouble with Lichen, and again, in that book (and you can read Peter's review of that one here) it's the emotional issues around young Matthew's 'possession' by Chocky, an alien scout who is using him as a conduit through which to survey Earth as a possible planet for her people to colonise, where you find the main drive behind the narrative. There are also ethical issues raised due to some of the things Matthew is able to 'do' with Chocky's assistance - does he claim ownership, or not? If he does, how does he explain how he can now do things that he previously couldn't...within a very short time frame. It's a case of 'out of the mouths of babes', in a way, as Matthew himself refuses to not have Chocky acknowledged.

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


  1. Kaz, it's a good thing that you live miles away from me. If we were on the same continent, nothing would stop me from going to your house and then stealing that Wyndham hardcover from you. You just have one of the most amazing book collections I know.

    Yes, Trouble with Lichen certainly feels different, as compared with the rest of Wyndham's sci-fi novels. What's very inspired in this novel though is that it presents a good thesis on gender politics. It makes you want to read a biography of the author just to find out if there was an underlying reason for coming up with a novel rife with issues.

    1. LOL Peter!

      I have a thing for old books, I must say. If I can get something in a pre-loved edition, that's my first choice. A legacy of my mother's I think...

      Now - and I'm holding you accountable for this - I have to go hunt for a biog of Wyndham...if such a beast exists. I have a reasonably large collection of biographies of favourite authors, autobiographies too - remember, they live near the book bears! I've never stumbled across one of John Wyndham, so here's hoping I can find one. Because, I think you're right - there had to be something going on to lies behind this book. I've always wondered. Now I have to know. Sigh...


  2. Hi Kaz, Trouble With Lichen has been one of my favorite books for decades. I love his portrayal of women.

    Incidentally, if you prefer hardcover editions, beware. I noticed that the hardcover edition of John Wyndham's Day of the Triffids is missing some parts, for instance the scene early on where the protagonist meets with the blind doctor in the hospital. It is in the paperback edition, but not the hardcover (at least the harcover edition I had).

    I've never seen a biography of John Wyndham. It's something I would love to read too. I count many of his books among my favorites.

    I have a bit of an obsession with books too, owning some thousands of them.

    1. Greetings, Miriam, and welcome to my blog.

      As far as I can ascertain, there is no biography of Wyndham in existence. I've spent ages sleuthing, and there are just fragments online. Why, I don't know... Perhaps, given their popularity - Penguin have just re-released most of them - someone will find it a worthy project.

      Trouble with Lichen is my only hardcover. My others - if you do a search through the blog, there's a photo of all of them together - are battered Penguin paperbacks. Mind you, they're old enough to have been made in a period when even paperbacks were made to last, so apart from having scuffed corners and somewhat battered spines, they're structurally sound - which is more than I can say for some of my more recently published, equally well-loved paperbacks, whose glue gave way horribly early so that they have to be read with great care so as not to lose any of the loose pages!

      Good to have your comments - perhaps I'll see you again here one day.

    2. Most of mine are old paperbacks too. In recent years I've come to prefer electronic books over paper ones, so have begun to replace some of my paper books -- they take up so much space.

      About a decade ago I moved house and had to hire a fairly large truck for the move. It really hit me then how paper books have come to tyrannize my space; about three quarters of the truck was occupied by books, and the rest by furniture, clothing, and computers.

      Nowadays I can walk around with more than 30 thousand ebooks in the palm of my hand. Not only are ebooks a terrific space saving, I've found that reading them on an electronic device is easier too. I was prompted to re-read "Trouble with Lichen", but having grown used to reading electronic texts I was reluctant to use my paperback copy, so I splashed out and bought an electronic copy.

      There is one massive drawback to ebooks though. The publishers have become insanely paranoid and lock the books up. It is simple to prove that sooner or later those locks will lock you out of ebooks you've legitimately bought. For that reason I prefer to buy unlocked books (Baen Books sell unlocked ebooks) or download free ebooks from Project Gutenberg (they're never locked). If my only choice is to buy locked books I try to use special software to remove the locks afterwards so that I won't lose them in the future (In the past I've bought encumbered ebooks that have locked me out -- an infuriating experience.)

      On the subject of paper book bindings, yes, I've had that same distressing experience of a much-loved book literally falling apart after the glue gave up.

    3. Good news! It seems a biography of John Wyndham is in the works, as I read in

      "David Ketterer, professor of English and lecturer in science fiction at Concordia University in Montreal, is currently writing a critical biography of John Wyndham."

      He was still writing it in 2010.

      I wonder when it will be available.

  3. I know David Ketterer. The biography is as good as finished but getting someone to publish is currently the issue.

    1. You KNOW him...?! Autographed copy when it makes it to print, perhaps...pretty please? Swap you for a Penguin cookbook or two....