Two of the novels I read recently has this concept of protagonist(s) discovering something that can change the way world works. The first one is titled “The Doing of Raffles Haw” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. This is one of his numerous non-Sherlock Holmes work. The second one is “Trouble with Lichen” by John Wyndham. I am not usually into sci-fi. But this was a book about elongating life that was sent to my by Priya as a special birthday present (I shall not say which birthday :D). So, I decided to read it.
Before going further
I am going to discuss the plot of the books. Both the books maintain a suspense for a while at least. So, if you plan on reading them and do not want the suspense to be revealed, please do not read further.
In “The Doings of Raffles Haw“, the protagonist is a Chemistry enthusiast, who has discovered the process of converting metals to other metals with successive lower molecular weights. So, among other things, he can convert a metal like lead to gold. (The process, supposedly only partially described, can send you into laugh riot in this day and age. But let’s ignore that – it is a work of fiction, after all!) The protagonists of “Trouble with Lichen” are bio-chemists. They have, independently, but with a connected coincidence, discovered a chemical extracted from a rare lichen that can slow down the aging process.
The discoveries are all very well. But the dilemma is what to really do with these discoveries. Raffles Haw, the Chemistry enthusiast, is hesitant is just publishing his finding for all to know. It would suddenly alter the dynamics of precious metal trade, crashing it down and taking away livelihoods of many (De Beers cartel model was still in future for Doyle, I believe!). That would be too heavy on his conscience. The two protagonists of “Trouble with Lichen” have their own sets of issues. One of them is worried that if the knowledge of this anti-aging chemical (dubbed anti-gerone) would send people in frenzy. Everyone would want it. But the lichens producing them are in extreme short-supply. Until the chemical could be synthesized on a large-scale, or alternate sources of anti-gerones could be found, letting the knowledge on would lead to a blood-bath. The other protagonist, who is younger, is more enthusiastic. Although she is also constrained by the shortage of supply. But to her it is a tool for everything from women-empowerment to making life more meaningful for everyone. I won’t get into details. Her problem is that she expects institutions to oppose anti-gerones. How would she create an army of individuals who would want longer lives? Short-supply of anti-gerones doesn’t help.
In short, making the discovery public does not work for the good of human-kind, at least in the eyes of protagonists.
What the protagonists did, and whether it worked as they wanted it to work, is the job best left to the novels themselves, than this post. But the situation does give one some food for thought. If there are discoveries, there are truths that can bring upheavals in the world, in a way that is not necessary good for people, at least in the short-term, what does a well-meaning individual with the knowledge of that truth do? Does he conceal? For how long? If he does, what is the guarantee that a not-so-well-meaning or outright evil person will not discover the truth and reveal or use it in a manner even more damaging? Does one person really have power to stop the world from facing an inconvenient truth? Is it right? How can one even be sure that the truth is inconvenient and damaging? What if the judgement of that individual is wrong? And human kind would actually be better off for knowing the truth?
Can you think of a situation like that? What would you have done?