Science Fiction for the Uninitiated

I have recently finished two books: Kazuo Ishiguro‘s The Unconsoled and John Wyndham‘s Trouble With Lichen.

John Wyndham, "Trouble with Lichen"

The latter of which has an excellent front cover, kind of a mistake on my part as it mostly made me giggle. It seemed as though the greatest trouble with lichen was that it grew on your face.

In fact, what I found between the amusingly-illustrated covers was a really interesting book – both in subject and in narration. I’m really a fan of Wyndham now, in spite of Day of the Triffids, and I can’t get over the way he tells his stories. While undeniably science fiction, Wyndham brings a humanity (with all the good and bad that that includes) to his sci-fi ideas which makes them so interesting. Wyndham books can be read not only by sci-fi fans, but sci-fi cynics, and I’m pretty sure members of either camp would enjoy this novel.

Plot summary stolen from Wikipedia yet again: “The plot concerns a young woman biochemist who discovers that a chemical extracted from an unusual strain of lichen (hence the title) can be used to retard the ageing process, enabling people to live to around 200–300 years. Wyndham speculates how society would deal with this prospect.”

I really thought this would be, well, a standard example of how science can save or destroy the day depending on whose hands it is in and what their motives are. But in this book Wyndham goes beyone just considering the moral implications and his characters go straight ahead, plowing on with things and blow the consequences. It’s brilliant. The world Wyndham then creates is so different from our own, and from what I expected, that’s it’s really excellent to read. I was really engaged with the issues and really caring about what was happening.

This is partly down the the excellent narrative choices. Instead of writing the novel from either Diana or Francis’ point of view, or even that of their children, Wyndham dips into their voices as well as the voices of Francis’ children, various reporters, Diana’s employees – everyone. And, which I think is the most unique and appealing aspect of the narration, everything is reported. And you won’t hear me saying this too often. None of the actual “events”, discovering the lichen’s properties, the funeral, riots or other atrocities actually happen “in front” of the reader, as it were. All events are reported from character to character, or from newspapers to the reader. The novel has a documentarial feel to it, and as well as that from each reporting of an event you not only learn  more about the characters from how they react to the news. So while the events are told, the characterisation is certainly “shown”, as the term is.

I won’t go into plot details here, or in fact go on about this book any more – other than to say: read it! It is excellent. I am really a fan of Wyndham now, I haven’t come across anyone so willing to really run with an idea like this (or at least in this manner) and even if you don’t like science fiction, you should definitely give this book a go – in fact I would go so far as to say if you don’t like science fiction, then you should read this book.

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