I’m just re-reading John Wyndham‘s classic Trouble with Lichen, so I was attracted to the idea of watching a local TV (That’s Cambridge) re-run of the 1962 film of his 1951 masterpiece The Day of the Triffids.
I must say that, watching such amateur incarnations of the deadly plant creatures so vividly and frighteningly portrayed in the book, any concerns I had about the current over-use of CGI in modern movies were quickly put to bed. I think a secondary school art class could have done a much better job!
But as is so often the case with great sci-fi novels, the film did bring to mind a number of very current issues: there, in key scenes, was Moorfields Eye Hospital, where NHS finances were no doubt in much better shape back in the early ‘sixties; the flashing lights from the falling meteorites gave an echo of the recent asteroid near miss; and seeing the great triffids advancing towards the seemingly helpless humans reminded me of the debate around GM crops.
In the film, our heroes managed to stay alive through the use of fire, turning the triffids and their lethal whiplash tongues into a glorified stir-fry as they tried unsuccessfully to break through the wire fence around the compound. (Personally I would probably have gone in with a glyphosate-based weedkiller – the gardening equivalent of an AK-47 – although to be fair to Wyndham, glyphosate wasn’t discovered until 1970 and Roundup didn’t hit the market until ’74).
Trouble with Lichen is equally, almost spookily, far-sighted. It too points to a number of themes of modern living that remained on the socio-cultural agenda throughout the latter half of the 20th century and continue to do so in the twenty-first.
(Lichen, small mosses and the like don’t get a very good press. In fact they don’t get much of a press at all, even though they can be quite decorative and add colour to an otherwise bland part of a garden or building).
The heroine of the novel, Diana Brackley, surreptitiously markets a newly-discovered (by her) anti-aging drug, Antigerone, developed from a rare form of lichen, only to influential women. Her objective is female empowerment. But Wyndham’s 1960 novel again opens up a number of associated topics that ring all too true even today; for instance, the media have a lot to say about who should get the new drug (the Evening Flag is right behind the idea of the Queen being the first to benefit. The Times and the FT underline the effects on the chemical and insurance industries). The sometimes controversial field of clinical trials is also hinted at.
Diana herself muses on the subject of relationships in a society where marriage becomes an almost interminably long institution:
“‘I’ve been wondering, as a matter of fact, how marriage is going to mesh with the new order. One feels that people who can go on loving one another for two or three hundred years are probably pretty scarce’.
“‘It doesn’t mesh, as you put it, any too well with the present order’, Francis remarked, ‘but it gets adapted. I don’t see why it should not be adapted further. Fixed term marriages, with options, as in leases, perhaps?’
“Diana shook her head”.
Wikipedia draws attention to “a notable parallel between Antigerone and rapamycin, a polyketide drug produced by soil bacteria discovered on Easter Island. Although originally developed as an antifungal medication and used clinically primarily as an immunosuppressive to prevent immune rejection of transplanted organs, rapamycin has recently been the subject of intense interest as a potential anti-aging drug”.
Earlier this year, an international team from Harvard and the University of New South Wales (UNSW) – announced a discovery that may well lead to a revolutionary drug capable of reversing aspects of the aging process. By offering a treatment for DNA damage from aging and radiation, the drug could be especially helpful for astronauts who set out on extended missions to Mars and beyond. My son Will Fox has an excellent article on this topic on his highly popular website, Future Timeline.
But when will we see this or other anti-aging research come to fruition? And will anyone living now be around to benefit from it?
Only time will tell!