Enter now Old England! To read a work by John Wyndham is always like watching one of the earliest 007 movies, when British Empire still ruled the waves, at least in the Britons’ souls.
Only H.G.Wells gives a stronger feeling of genuine science fiction arising in the midst of a past society. Here, the Tories are still in power, bright young women struggle to have their work ambitions approved over marriage, and are still supposed to marry as virgins; inheritance taxes are a constant worry for the well-off.
The discovery of a lichen capable to prolonge human life many times, but existing in very short supply, unleashes deep worries in its discoverers; they so decide to hold the knowledge for themselves and to follow different paths in life: a scientist keeping mum about the substance, his brilliant assistant launching a very successful beauty business. Years later, the truth finally comes out of the closet: a free-for-all scramble ensues to grab the precious little lichenin available, with potentially deadly consequences for the keepers of the secret.
The story does not dwell on the social consequences of nearly eternal life for humans: which would have made a great sociological sci-fi novel. This is maybe a lost opportunity; Wyndham prefers to write a divertissement on British society, womanly roles, and industrial espionage. A lighter book, but very entertaining. The dazzling string of final twists in the plot puts the reader’s perplexities to rest, and makes us ignore some unlikely developments of the story.
Wyndham’s British English is delightfully artful, with a trove of sayings and idioms, some of them now obsolete (who would say to his fiancé “darling, you’re tight” after she drank too many Martinis? Or that a girl “has a pash” for a young woman she admires? Or “I don’t want to be piggish” for changing our own plans at the last moment, no matter if that’s comfortable for the others?).
It is utterly hard to believe that at the same time J.G.Ballard was writing the Vermilion Sands stories and Drowned World!