Trouble With Lichen by John Wyndham (1960) 204 p.

This one’s similar to Chocky in the sense that it’s one of Wyndham’s overlooked novels, and that although my school library had both of them alongside all the rest, I never read it as a teenager. Possibly both of them failed to capture my imagination the same way as his famous four apocalyptic novels. In any case, I was wrong to avoid Chocky, which is an excellent first contact yarn, but right to avoid Trouble With Lichen, which is a flop.

The novel follows young biochemist Diana Brackley and her mentor Francis Saxover, and a discovery they make which leads to an anti-ageing serum which can extend the human lifespan to beyond two hundred years. Going their separate ways, Saxover develops his in secret and administers it to his children, while Diana – fearful that the government might attempt to outlaw it upon the discovery being made public – establishes an expensive beauty clinic for the wives and daughters of Britain’s influential powerbrokers, in the hope that they’ll exert pressure on their male counterparts when push comes to shove.

It was hard to shake the feeling that this was a sexist book – it isn’t really, but Wyndham is writing from a pre-liberation viewpoint with characters espousing various generalisations which were probably all too true at the time. (And Wyndham always had a habit of writing about the Britain of the 1950s as though it were actually the Britain of his 1920s youth.) It reminded me in that sense of The Midwich Cuckoos; it’s a sort of clueless and unwitting sexism which can mostly (but not entirely) be chalked up to its time, and Wyndham does deserve credit for writing active, intelligent female scientist characters. On the other hand, his constant mockery of various other groups he dislikes (socialists, journalists, the working class, the upper class, the Irish, etc) grew tiresome very quickly. There’s a lot less space for that sort of thing when you’re running from man-eating plants or surviving in a flooded London.

Besides all that, though, Trouble With Lichen is simply not very interesting. It takes until well past the halfway point of the novel for the plot to really get moving, and it’s far more concerned with the lives of its thin characters than the social effects of the anti-ageing serum. Wyndham is one of the century’s greatest science fiction writers, but this is a rare dud – don’t bother.