Cryonics

Tagged: Theme

A term coined in the 1960s by Karl Werner, referring to techniques for preserving the human body by supercooling. R C W Ettinger's The Prospect of Immortality (1964) popularized the idea that the corpses of terminally ill people might be "frozen down" in order to preserve them until such a time as medical science would discover cures for all ills and a method of resurrecting the dead. Many sf stories have extrapolated the notion.

The preservative effects of low temperatures have been known for a long time. The notion of reviving human beings accidentally entombed in ice was first developed as a fictional device by W Clark Russell in The Frozen Pirate (1887). In Louis Boussenard's Dix mille ans dans un bloc de glace (1889; trans as 10,000 Years in a Block of Ice 1898) a contemporary man visits the future as a result of a similar accident. Edgar Rice Burroughs's "The Resurrection of Jimber Jaw" (20 February 1937 Argosy Weekly) is a satirical account of the revival of a prehistoric man and his experiences in the civilized world; Richard Ben Sapir's The Far Arena (1978) is a modern variant involving a Roman gladiator. Freezing is still sf's most popular means of achieving Suspended Animation (see also Sleeper Awakes), but recent debate about cryonics relates also to the themes of Reincarnation and Immortality. The Cryonics Society of California began freezing newly dead people in 1967, and the movement seems to have survived the setback it suffered when a power failure caused a number of frozen bodies to thaw out in 1981, sparking off a chain of lawsuits. The rumour that Walt Disney's body (or head) is in a deep-freeze somewhere remains an unconfirmed Urban Legend. Interest in the theme is by no means confined to the USA, and two of the major fictional examinations of the prospect are European: Nikolai Amosov's Zapiski iz budushchego (1967; trans as Notes from the Future 1970) and Anders Bodelsen's Frysepunktet (1969; trans as Freezing Point 1971; vt Freezing Down 1971). Cryonic preservation is still used in stories of Time Travel into the future, including Frederik Pohl's The Age of the Pussyfoot (1969), Mack Reynolds's Utopian Looking Backward, from the Year 2000 (1973) and the Woody Allen film Sleeper (1973). It is also a common device in stories of slower-than-light Spaceships: in E C Tubb's Dumarest series interstellar travel may be "high" or "low", depending upon whether time is absorbed by the use of Drugs or more hazardous cryonic procedures, while James White's The Dream Millennium (1974) explores hypothetical psychological effects of long-term freezing.

Further media treatments besides the already-cited Sleeper (1973) include, in Cinema, Buck Rogers (1939) (see Buck Rogers in the 25th Century), The Man With Nine Lives (1940), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968); (1974); Parts: The Clonus Horror (1979; vt Clonus), The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1987), Forever Young (1992) and Vanilla Sky (2001); in Television, Adam Adamant Lives! (1966-1967) and the Doctor Who storyline The Tomb of the Cybermen (2-23 September 1967); and in Videogames, Suspended: A Cryogenic Nightmare (1983).

The possible social problems associated with large-scale cryonic projects are explored in various sf stories. Clifford D Simak's Why Call Them Back from Heaven? (1967) imagines a time when a person can be tried for delaying the freezing of a corpse, permitting "ultimate death", and the financial estates of the frozen have become a political power-bloc, inviting criminal manipulation. A cynical account of the politics of dealing with the dead is offered in Larry Niven's "The Defenseless Dead" (in Ten Tomorrows, anth 1973, ed Roger Elwood), which points out that the living have all the votes and that the deep-frozen dead might be an exploitable Organlegging resource, subtly dehumanized by being labelled with Frederik Pohl's joky term Corpsicles. Ernest Tidyman's satirical thriller Absolute Zero (1971), about a financier who builds up a vast cryonics industry, is similarly cynical. A cryonics scam, with 90% of a firm's "customers" disposed of to organ banks, features in Doorways in the Sand (1976) by Roger Zelazny. In real-world cryonics, bodiless heads are also frozen in hope of future revival; a tale centred on such a cryonic storage facility is Heads (July-August 1990 Interzone; 1990) by Greg Bear. Lois McMaster Bujold deploys cryonic preservation in more than one book of her Miles Vorkosigan sequence, and her Cryoburn (2010) is set on a planet dominated by competing cryonics corporations with associated complications of Economics, Politics and Technology.

As might be expected, many stories depicting people who try to "cheat" death by having themselves frozen down find suitably ironic ways to thwart them. The hero of Larry Niven's "Wait It Out" (1968 The Future Unbound Program Book), self-frozen on Pluto to await possible rescue, suffers the torments of consciousness as each night's extreme cold makes his nervous system superconductive. In "Ozymandias" (in Again, Dangerous Visions, anth 1972, ed Harlan Ellison) by Terry Carr people who take to the cryonic vaults in order to avoid a war fall victim, like the mummified pharaohs of ancient Egypt before them, to professional "tomb-robbers". In Gregory Benford's now-anachronistic "Doing Lennon" (April 1975 Analog) an unfrozen John Lennon turns out not to be what he appears or aspires to be; much more ambitiously, Benford's Chiller (1993) as by Sterling Blake comprehensively (and very sympathetically) describes a near-future development of the cryonics movement under threat from a psychotic anti-freezer campaign conducted by a serial killer. And in "And He Not Busy Being Born ..." (Summer 1986 Interzone) by Brian M Stableford a bold entrepreneur who succeeds against the odds in delivering himself into a world of immortals find that he still cannot evade his destiny. [BS/DRL]

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