Thursday, 10 September 2009

Trouble with Lichen

Trouble with Lichen by John Wyndham is a Science Fiction novel set in the 1950s but do not let that put you off! It is an entertaining novel that in many ways is both a product of its time, progressive for its time and timeless. It is also a social satire and did I mention entertaining? I have found this and the other Wyndham novel I have read -The Midwich Cuckoos- surprisingly accessible despite their speculative subject matter; I am eager to read his other work, especially The Chrysalids and Day of the Triffids. Although a book group choice, this wasn't so much taking me out of my comfort zone as I have been anxious to read more of Wyndham, but others in the group found it a welcome change and one a definite departure that she didn't enjoy very much. Trouble with Lichen encouraged interesting dialogue but, for the most part, the themes are light and this was a great read. One of our group couldn't get her hands on Trouble with Lichen so read Day of the Triffids instead, which made for a unique discussion, especially as that novel is more famous and post-apocalyptic.

Diana Brackley is a young, beautiful and promising biochemist, who upon leaving Cambridge goes to work at Darr House Developments, a biochemical lab run by the eminent biochemist, Francis Saxover; it is a career move that "was to determine the course of her life." At Darr, Diana and Francis come across a lichen that they accidentally discover has unique properties; experimenting separately, they each discover that the lichen possesses an anti-aging quality. The lichen does not cease aging but significantly slows the process down and both scientists recognise the potential and danger in what they have discovered.

Diana leaves Darr but fourteen years later contacts Francis. Diana has started and sustained a successful and prestigious beauty company in London. The beauty industry cannot preserve youth and beauty but clients seek this and the antigerone -the lichen- can help. However, Diana is facing discovery and melodrama ensues. The novel then becomes both a satire of the Press and one of intrigue and mystery, with plot devices ranging from blackmail to kidnapping, and even to espionage and murder. There are also global ramifications to the public knowledge of what lichen can do and although very much set in an era of the Cold War, this part was the most relevant to today's scientific, nuclear and industrial advances and the the far-reaching trade and political effects they have.

Trouble with Lichen is a very entertaining melodrama that lightly -and very much tongue-in-cheekly- tackles scientific and feminist themes. Diana is one of Wyndham's few fully-fledged female characters and she is intentionally keeping her powerful (through their husbands/male family), female characters young and beautiful to eke out their potential. Part of me found this condescending but I think the viewpoint is a product of its time: women's lives were taken up by being wives and mothers and Diana gives them more time for personal and societal achievement.

My favourite quotes, that highlight the amusing over-blown 1950s melodrama (picture the scenes in black and white cinema):

On closer consideration, then, the implication of the unguarded reply was scarcely to be escaped: the Tertius lichen certainly had a property which looked antibiotic; but if it had turned out not to be antibiotic, then what had it turned out to be...?
And why should Francis wish to conceal it...?

'Nature is unfair to women. We flower with tragic brevity. Hitherto, science which has transformed the world has neglected us, but now comes Miss Brackley like a messenger from Olympus, offering us what every woman desires - a long summer of full bloom. It seems likely that this will lead to a fall in the present rate of divorce.'

All my life I've been watching potentially brilliant women let their brains, and their talents, rot away. I could weep for the waste of it; for what they might have been, and might have done ... But give them two hundred, three hundred years, and they'll either have to employ those talents to keep themselves sane - or commit suicide out of boredom.


Tony said...

I read this while I was doing my GCSEs (the results of which I received 18 years ago...) along with a few of his other books. Vague memories of an essay on Wyndham's novels' pointing to the end of civilisation are starting to come back. However, I still refuse to believe that it's pronounced LIE-kun and not LI-Chin!

Paperback Reader said...

Tony, I was most indignant last night when it was pronounced differently to the way I had always said it... I am still in denial!

End of civilisation is spot-on with Wyndam - how perceptive of you as a teen! That's why some of his work is still relevant as it is the fear we all live with.

Rachel said...

Sounds very interesting! A departure from my usual genres but I might just give it a go as you have recommended it, Claire!

I remember in Year 7 at school I sat next to a strange boy in my form who was obsessed with The Day of the Triffids. For that reason alone I have been reluctant to touch Wyndham...the memories of his dirty fingernails and disturbing drawings of people drowning in acid just keep flooding back!

Paperback Reader said...

Thanks, Rachel! Just don't go expecting great things from this one but perhaps it will prompt you to branch out to his more famous work.

That horrific school story would put you off! It's obsessed fans who often give authors a bad name.

farmlanebooks said...

I haven't read anything by John Wyndham, but it sounds as though he is a good one to try. Thank you for the recommendation!

Paperback Reader said...

Jackie, he's certainly a good place to start. I hope you fare well with him.

Steph said...

I've never heard of this author before, but your review really makes me want to give him a shot. This also sounds like something my husband would like.

Oh, and at least over here in North America, it's definitely pronounced LIE-ken. ;)

Paperback Reader said...

Steph, he's famous here in the UK as is probably one of our more well-known writers in this field.

Good to know about lie-kin, although definitely strange to the ear!

Jo said...

I read The Day of The Triffids a long time ago, and I've got the Chrysalids somewher, although I haven't read it yet. I'd never heard of this one, but it sounds good.

Paperback Reader said...

Hi Jo, Trouble with Lichen is lesser known; I also recommend The Midwich Cuckoos. I'm looking forward to reading the more popular The Chrysalids and Day of the Triffids as only heard good things about both.