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Trouble With Lichen (1973)

Trouble With Lichen (1973)

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3.62 of 5 Votes: 4
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0140019863 (ISBN13: 9780140019865)
penguin books ltd

About book Trouble With Lichen (1973)

Originally published on my blog here in December 2011.John Wyndham's most famous books, The Day of the Triffids and The Midwich Cuckoos (filmed as Village of the Damned) are fairly serious stories of disasters, a theme also followed in The Kraken Wakes. The Trouble with Lichen, a later novel, is not quite in the same line, being an examination of the negative social consequences of a scientific discovery which initially seems to be a great boon to the human race. There is also a fair amount of arch and faintly satirical humour, more apparent here than in the earlier novels (even if touches of it can be discerned).The central characters of The Trouble with Lichen are two biochemists, newly graduated Diana Brackley and the head of the research company at which she finds work, Francis Saxover. While working on a collection of lichen samples from an expedition to the Far East, Diana serendipitously discovers that one of the samples prevents milk from turning, in a narrative directly lifted from the story of Alexander Fleming's discovery of penicillin. She and Francis work on this independently, and discover that the lichen does not in fact contain the expected antibiotic agent, but instead acts to slow down the aging process, acting well enough to give a human being a life expectancy of maybe 200 years.The problems, when they think them through, turn out to be many and complex. Firstly, the lichen is only found in one small area, so the supply is extremely limited, only enough to treat around a thousand people. Then there are the social issues: what happens when there is no "natural wastage" to speak of, so that two hundred years of active life will be spent in a job which is a dead end, as the senior people will effectively never retire? Or when there is no chance of inheritance, or when the world becomes overcrowded?Some of these problems are much more in the air than they were in the early sixties, as populations age (especially in the West) and the number of people in the world reaches seven billion (from about three billion when the The Trouble with Lichen was published). As a science fictional exploration of the issues, it is as relevant now as it was in 1960, if not more so. Many countries are reacting to these problems now - by redefining what retirement means and when it starts, for example. But in The Trouble with Lichen this is emphasised rather less than some of the other issues, and it is the over-arching theme of the double-edged nature of scientific and technical advances which really resonates today, in the age of global warming.Wyndham starts with a prologue describing Diana's funeral, so the reader knows that the novel will not all be cheerful, but he ends on a positive note, as his novels usually do. Like many science fiction writers of his generation, he seems to have been convinced that human ingenuity will be able to solve any problem, even ones which have been caused through science and technology. As in, say, The Day of the Triffids, the upbeat nature of the ending is dependent on hard work over many years, and Wyndham is unable or unwilling to suggest solutions to many of the problems he raises. They are hard issues, so this is not particularly surprising; nor is it necessarily a bad thing, as ideas produced by science fiction writers over fifty years ago are quite likely to seem naive in 2011, no matter how seriously intended at the time.Of Wyndham's novels, this is the only one which I can recall as having a major female character who is not basically a wife and companion to the man who is the main centre of attention. This is probably more because the nature of the discovery lends itself to the idea of the use of the beauty industry to exploit but at the same time hide the discovery of the properties of the lichen than from any conversion to feminism by the author. After all, the campaign she mounts after the lichen becomes public knowledge is based on the use of her clients as the wives of important figures, rather than on any importance they might hold in their own right. The UK in 2011 may still have a male dominated establishment (just look at the Cabinet, or the board of any large bank), but I think that today's reader would probably expect some at least of these women to have important careers of their own, rather than having no role other than that of wife and mother.Old fashioned, but still in many ways relevant; well written with touches of humour, The Trouble with Lichen is an excellent novel which deserves to be as well known as Wyndham's most famous works.

This is one of those books where I wished I could put half a star because It's better than ok but I'm not sure that I really liked it...Trouble With Lichen is about how two biochemists discover a lichen which can slow down a persons metabolism and then how they deal with these discoveries. Francis Saxover feels that it will be a disaster as there isn't enough of the lichen for everyone and so he decides to hide the discovery while Diana Brackley gets a job at an upscale beauty and secretly starts dosing clients who have important husbands with the lichen so that when word finally gets out it won't just get shut down.I really enjoyed most of this story and the idea behind it but found that after 140 pages it started to waffle a bit. This is because quickly after Diana and Francis meet up again it all starts falling down around them. It's not even like there is a time jump in the story it is really like a week later when everyone is trying to figure out their secret and going to some pretty serious lengths to find out. I struggled to really understand why that was happening so fast.My other big problem with this book is the science, because seriously it's just not how biology works. The basis of the lichen is that is slows down you metabolism by a certain factor that is determined by the concentration of your dose. Francis and Diana slow there metabolisms down to 1/5 of the speed while everyone they use it on is at about 1/3 of the speed of their regular metabolism. I first realised the flaw in the science when one character asks if using the lichen will mean they have to start eating less and I automatically answered in my head "Well yes. Of course you do! If you don't you are going to gain weight like crazy." Then I read the reply of "No" from the other character and was slightly concerned but figured, hey it's fiction give them some leeway. Then I started thinking about it all a little more.Diana has to be on top of any of her beauty clients who come in becoming pregnant because if they remain on the lichen they are going to be pregnant for 27 months and people are going to notice. Cover blown. But then, thinking on it further, seeing as the majority of the people on the lichen anyway are women aren't they going to pick it up for themselves pretty quickly? If their entire body metabolism is slowed down by 1/3 that means that are only going to menstruate every 3 months. That's something they are going to pick up quickly. These are just some pretty big flaws in the science I picked up and while I get that at the time it was written, especially since it's written by a man, this isn't really something they are going to discuss in fictional book.Once you get past that though it's a fairly decent read from an author that I enjoy so it's not put me off reading more of his stuff. Overall 2.5 stars.

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This lesser known novel from John Wyndham deals with the sudden discovery of a lichen that extends a person’s life to almost 200 years. The discoverer is a feminist who decides that the lichen provides the perfect opportunity to start a revolution to liberate women. The first half of the book is seemingly written in a tongue-in-cheek style and I found a distraction in attempting to figure out whether Wyndham is criticising elements of the feminist movement or promoting it.The second half of the book seems to shift and from here I get the impression that he is criticising a wider issue about any kind of scientific revolution in human history and those who attempt to exploit it. Once the existence of the lichen is out, it spreads fear to governments and those with a vested interest in their own market share and a desperate clamour to claim the lichen for themselves.I’m afraid the book is just too messy for Wyndham’s point to be clear. It jumps around too much and any moral point he is trying to make just keeps changing before the point is finally revealed and by that time, though the book is short, I had given up caring.See more book reviews at my blog
—M.G. Mason

This is an excellent piece of work - an intelligent, classy piece of work that knocks the socks off a lot of SF being written today. The book revolves around the discovery of an anti-agathic drug and the implications of this discovery. The discussion of how this would affect society, institutions and families is particularly well realised. I note that a considerable amount of ink has been spilt on feminist readings of this particular text - if like me that is the sort of thing that would immediately put you off, please do not be dissuaded. This is a far more thought provoking and challenging book than that might suggest.
—Conrad Kinch

OVERALL IMPRESSIONI think Trouble with Lichen is a great novel. I enjoyed reading it. Wyndham is the only science fiction writer I really enjoy. Trouble with Lichen is no exception. I thoroughly enjoyed it.HIGHLIGHTSI love Wyndham’s concept for Trouble with Lichen. The trouble is the lichen exists in a very small amount. Francis and Diana work for years to find a way to replicate it and grow more but never succeed. The lichen therefore can’t be given to everyone in the world. This is part of the reason they try to keep it secret. I really liked this idea. They found something that could increase human life span to 200 years but there’s a little snag. I liked the media frenzy as the truth is slowly revealed and it was cool when Diana faked her death. I also liked the ending.I thought Diana was a great character, women power and all that. She was smart yet beautiful and pretty much kicked Francis’s butt. You go girl. She opens Nefertiti Ltd, an exclusive beauty salon for rich women she treated with the lichen. I think she was a great character. She was much stronger than Margaret, the simpering wet-end from Westwood by Stella Gibbons.Trouble with Lichen like all of Wyndham’s novels that I’ve read is set in an eerily familiar and realistic world. I’m not a fan of science fiction that set in far off, weird worlds. I can’t relate to it. I like Wyndham because his work is set on earth and is sometimes chillingly plausible. If Trouble with Lichen had been set on Mars or some other planet I’d have hated it.I like Wyndham’s style as a writer. His prose is crisp and powerful. There wasn’t a word wasted in Trouble with Lichen. No flowery language and over the top descriptions. He gets straight to the point. This works well in his short novels. I don’t think I would like his style across 400 or 500+ pages though.Trouble with Lichen questions how much power is wielded by science in our lives. I think this can be applied to today’s society. I’m very cynical about some scientific and technical advances. I think people rely on technology far too much and social networking to an extent has dumbed down human communication. I also think science sometimes interferes with nature too much. That’s just my opinion. This made Trouble with Lichen extra creepy for me. Who would want to live to be 200 anyway? Not me that’s for sure.LOWLIGHTSThere are two female characters in Trouble with Lichen who really irritated me, Francis’s daughter Zephanie and his son’s wife Jane. For a kick off what kind of a stupid name is Zephanie? She came across as a spoiled and petty child. I wanted to give her a good slap. Jane wasn’t much better. She had a bit of a temper tantrum when she found out Francis had excluded her from treatment with the lichen. I could have done without either of them.I thought the amount of dialogue in Trouble with Lichen was a bit excessive. I just looked at two pages at random and it’s all dialogue. This started to get a bit annoying. Some of the dialogue would have worked better as exposition.FINAL THOUGHTSTrouble with Lichen was very good. It gave me the chills. I love Wyndham’s overall concept for the novel. He had a great idea and executed it pretty well.
—Pamela Scott

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