John Wyndham is one of my favourite writers. His novels are beautifully written, and his stories feel fresh and innovative, despite being written half a century ago in a genre that is always building and expanding on itself. Unfortunately, Trouble With Lichen wasn’t my favourite of his. I still enjoyed it, but it didn’t hold my attention the way his novels typically do. I am making my way through the entirety of his bibliography, so I guess it’s inevitable that I’ll come across a few of his novels that fall a bit short for me.
The premise is fascinating. Biochemist Diana Brackley finds, by accident, that traces of the lichen she was studying was able to prevent some milk from spoiling. Upon further investigation, she is able to extract from it a drug that slows the aging process. What’s really interesting is the implications that arise from this discovery.
To begin with, there is a limited amount of the specific species needed to produce the drug, so the treatment could only go to those able to pay the premium price. So now society is faced the threat of even greater class boundaries, the rich living three times as long as the poor. What if everyone was able to access the drug? How would the world fare if everyone suddenly lived for two and a half centuries? How much unemployment would there be if no one was retiring and freeing up jobs? How would we deal with sudden overpopulation and everything that comes with that – feeding them, providing them timely healthcare, educating them, cleaning up after them? It would be such a quick and unanticipated change that it could very well leave the world in ruin.
Knowing that releasing the drug to the public could cause havoc, Diana Brackley decides to start administering the drug in secret to powerful women in the community to try and build a group that could someday inspire a feminist movement, the thought being that they’d be able to accomplish and learn so much more in their lifetimes. This would allow them more time to make a difference once they were in a position to do so. A strong sympathetic feminist as a point-of-view character in a 1960 science-fiction novel is somewhat unexpected and a nice surprise, and while her plan is morally unnerving and a little off the wall, it does come across as well-intentioned.
Wyndham poses the questions in this novel, but he doesn’t really try to answer them. The story takes place when all of this change is just beginning, which makes it feel like an introduction to a larger story. It’s a great start, and I appreciate how he leaves the reader to puzzle out the potential outcomes to the possibilities he presents, but it left me a bit unsatisfied.