Sunday, June 10, 2012

Of fungi and algae, feminism, and old age

If you discovered a substance that delayed the ageing process, would you make it known immediately? I won't. We live longer lives now anyway than people who were around in the last century. And besides, adding years to our existence just might prove detrimental to the planet, considering that we have been f**king ever since.

In John Wyndham's excellent 1960 novel, Trouble with Lichen, that particular substance can be found in lichen, an organism that exists from the symbiotic relationship of a fungus and an alga. This relationship is ironic, as it's discovered separately by Francis Saxover and Diana Brackley, whose relatioship is anything but.

Saxover seems to be the passive character in the novel. Even though he owns the scientific company that isolated this substance, he doesn't make the breakthrough public, choosing instead to administer it just to himself and to his daughter and son. Brackley, on the other hand, an employee of Saxover, takes it upon herself to give the substance to as many women as possible.

Brackley, soon after she found that active substance in the lichen, resigns from Saxover's company and opens up her own beauty salon. For her, it's the only way to spread it to women without them knowing it. It's also her own radical way of subverting society's patriarchal dominance which she feels has inhibited women's roles in the world. She's the perfect feminist—one who has both beauty and brains.

Of course, as soon as people find out about this lichen, chaos breaks out. The inevitable issues are also brought up. Should this drug be made available to everyone? There's not enough lichen to produce it, so who should get it first? What about resources? Does the world have enough to sustain individuals who will live up to 200 or 300 years?

Trouble with Lichen is different from the other novels by Wyndham. For one, it's very political and philosophical. There are whole chapters exploring the arguments of both Brackley (who's for  the drug's immediate distribution) and Saxover (who's against it). The science fiction element in Trouble with Lichen isn't even the dominant theme. There's no space travel, no heavy techie stuff. What we have are mass riots and demonstrations, oily journalists out for a story, crafty wives and boyfriends, to name a few.

The novel is still very much enjoyable though. It doesn't have the scope of The Chrysalids and The Day of the Triffids nor the macabre factor of The Midwich Cuckoos. It doesn't play the paranoia game more effectively than Chocky. But Trouble with Lichen's plot is still ingenious, and I can't help but think that it somehow inspired a whole lot of sci-fi novelists to write books with similar stories.

Read this book if:
  1. You'll read anything by John Wyndham.
  2. You know that living up to 200 years just looks good on paper.
  3. You love classic science fiction.


Kaz said...

Hi Peter,
This was the next one on my Wyndham re-reading hit list. It's one of my favourites - particularly for the reasons you list. I love the politics of it, that Wyndham put himself right out there with such elegant subtlety.
I find much in Wyndham's writing to be very thought provoking - but this one really does tickle the brain cells on so many levels.
Nice work!

Visual Velocity said...

I need more exposure to science fiction. Luckily, I was able to buy Penguin's anthology of science fiction short stories ("More Penguin Science Fiction"). I wish I have more time to read books. My reading list is getting longer and longer each week, hehe

Peter S. said...

Hello, Kaz! I can't wait to read your post about it when you reread this novel!

Hi, Visual Velocity! Woot woot on your new purchase!