In July we completed the second round of our intergenerational online reading group discussions. Three of the groups have now read John Wyndham’s Trouble With Lichen (1960). In this post I’ll give you an idea of what the groups thought of the themes which arose in this book and how this influenced broader discussions of older age and future time.
John Wyndham was a science fiction author best known perhaps for Day of the Triffids, his first post-war novel, published in 1951. This book was very successful and established Wyndham as one of the key proponents of the science fiction genre in the UK. It was later adapted for television and film. His most popular novels and short stories published in the immediate post-war years were set in dystopian societies. Trouble With Lichen is different in that it is not set in a dystopian society, but rather the then present, and considers themes which focus on the future.
Who wants to live forever?
Trouble With Lichen was on our suggested reading list because of the central premise of the book, that life could be prolonged by slowing down the ageing process. This raised many discussion points for the group members. First, who would benefit? As Diana, the main character, asks in the book:
‘how many people are going to favour the prospect of long life at the cost of, say, two or three hundred years as an underling […] because behind them all is the assumption that the days of our age are three score years and ten, or thereabouts. Take that away, and they won’t work, most of them will even lose their whole raison d’etre’.John Wyndham, Trouble With Lichen (Penguin, 1960 (this edition 2008)), p. 87
Several group members, of all ages, found the characterisation that the working classes would not benefit from longer life problematic. In the novel it seemed that only those with privilege and power were judged capable of taking on the responsibility of longer life. Yet group members did not relish the prospect of working for over a hundred years. This was especially true of those group members of working age in their 30s and 40s who are already considering that they will work longer than their parents’ generation with rising life expectancies and delayed retirement ages. Most group members of all ages suggested that not only would money and resources be required to sustain a longer life but also good health. Comparisons were made with the economic and health inequality that exists in contemporary UK society, and group members discussed whether living longer would be beneficial in this context.
Time and the Future
This brought us to what would make group members want to live longer. Diana’s argument in the novel is that ‘we’ needed ‘Time to grow wise enough to build a new world’ (p. 123). Some group members, of all ages, wondered exactly who would want to take on this responsibility, others in their 60s and 70s suggested that this was for the ‘middle generation’, those in their 30s and 40s, to consider. Several group members also thought that we don’t need the ability to live longer to make changes and that it was important for people to explore what we can do now for our own futures as well as those of future generations. All groups explored how societal change could be achieved collectively and intergenerationally. Discussions considered practical ways of bringing together people of different ages: from the availability of shared public spaces and activities open to all in local community centres, to families playing games together with several generations at family gatherings. Members in the groups also suggested, in a variety of ways, that it was important to ensure that our lives had space and time for such community activities, whether hobbies or local volunteering. Older group members in their 50s-70s in one group suggested that time was particularly in short supply for people in middle age who are often caring for children and perhaps older relatives too.
A book of its time?
Trouble With Lichen received a mixed reception from the members of the reading groups. While some really enjoyed it as a novel with lots of action which posed interesting questions about longevity, others found that it was very much a product of the time in which it was written. Members of the reading groups of different ages, and especially women, thought that Diana’s characterisation and decisions reflected the sexist attitudes inherent in society in the late 1950s/early 1960s.
Have you read Trouble With Lichen? It would be great to hear what you thought of it – and whether you’d want to prolong your life. Let us know what you think by posting your comments below.
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