Chilling out at the Cryonics Institute

Chilling out at the Cryonics Institute

It was my practice to come in to the Galaxy office in New York once a week, generally on Thursdays, to deliver edited manuscripts and proof sheets for forwarding to the printer and to pick up the latest batch of submitted manuscripts to read on the way home. On one Thursday in the early 1960s, though, something unusual fell out of the mail sack. It wasn’t a story. It wasn’t exactly a manuscript at all. In its plastic binder, it had more the look of a self-published book, and it had an intriguing title: “Life Extension Through Freezing.”

Because it intrigued me, I read Robert Ettinger’s text right through then and there — skeptically at first, to be sure — and then I sat staring into space for a while because, against all expectations, the document made sense. I played its implications through in my mind, starting with someone dying. It didn’t matter what he was dying of — run over by a truck, cancer of the private parts, suicide by jumping off a bridge, whatever. Dead was dead, and what the cadaver’s nearest and dearest were to do was to get it down to cold.

I’m talking real cold here — not the wimpy temperature of your kitchen freezer where you keep the lamb chops and the broccoli, or even of dry ice, but liquid-gas temperatures, −250 degrees Celsius or colder. At temperatures like that organic material — including human corpses — does not decay. It doesn’t change at all for long, long periods of time.

All right, now the nearest and dearest have got their dearly beloved stiff in the very deep freeze. What has that accomplished for them?

Why, it has given them the indispensable gift of time. Time for the medical profession to identify what specific damage has been done to what specific parts of the body, either by being made dead in the first place or by being frozen itself. And then to repair all that damage, and then to start up once more all the body’s functions of breathing and pulsing and eating and excreting — that is, of being alive. And then, if any of that is beyond medical science’s capacities to do at the time, to get their asses back into their research facilities until they do have it all figured out.

The point, as this Ettinger fellow saw it, is that medical science, which has achieved so many wondrous successes in dealing so many of the harmful events which can take place in the human body, isn’t likely to quit the endeavor very soon. There is, to be sure, no guarantee that the researchers will keep on discovering new therapies indefinitely. But it’s still a pretty good gambling bet, especially if you stop to think of what the alternatives are for that poor, beat-up mortal frame you’ve been carrying around if you do nothing.

Anyway, if Ettinger’s idea got me that interested, I was pretty sure it would do much the same for many of my readers. So I sent this Dr. Ettinger an offer for the right to publish excerpts from his work and sat back to consider what to do next. First to schedule it: that was easy. I decided to put it in my new third magazine, Worlds of Tomorrow, mostly because it was so new that there weren’t going to be any indignant letters from old subscribers complaining that a cherished tradition had been violated.

Copy-editing the manuscript presented no problems; Ettinger had done a thorough job, even going so far as to check out the bulk prices for several kinds of liquid gases. I was confident that, by and large, my readers would have no problem encountering the piece in the magazine. But I wanted more than that. This was the kind of thing that might attract new readers for the magazine, if I only had some way of telling them about it. . . .

Fortunately I did. I had the hundreds of thousands of insomniacs who were addicted to the all-night radio talk show run by Long John Nebel.

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  1. DB says:

    When Terry Carr read about cryogenics, his response was to write the story “Ozymandias”, published in Again, Dangerous Visions. I haven’t been able to forget that one ever since, and that’s why the notion doesn’t appeal.

  2. Stefan Jones says:

    Cryonics was to SF in the 60s what the Singularity was to SF a few years ago: A suddenly popular notion that is used both *in* stories and is the *subject* of them.

    A commenter mentioned A World Out of Time in the last post. That story used cryonics to propel a 20th century guy (actually, his memories . . . his brain gets diced up to extract the info to reprogram a criminal) into a future where he can steal a spaceship. But cryonics isn’t really the point of the story.

    Age of the Pussyfoot is more cryonics-centered, in that it is used to allow multiple deaths and resurrection.

    The nastiest, and probably most realistic, cryonics story was in one of Warren Ellis’ Spider Jerusalem (Transmetropolitan) comics. Journalist Jerusalem tells the story of one of the resurrected corpsicles who wander the streets of the city in a perpetual future-shocked freakout. They live in a shelter, get handouts, and worst of all kind find anyone to listen and care.

  3. theophylact says:

    You really have to listen to this installment of This American Life, in which we find out how things really worked out:

  4. Curt Phillips says:

    Interesting article on cryonics. I remember 35 years ago that the most obvious problem in making cryonics into a practical thing was the seemingly irrepairable damage caused to cellular membranes during the freezing process. It never occured to me then that advances in genetic studies during my lifetime would at least make it conceivable that DNA could potentially be reconstructed even after such cellular damage. It’s actually a very John W. Campbell sort of solution to the problem, isn’t it? You encounter an apparently immovable obstacle to the project; find a way around it by *thinking* in a new direction.

    Walt Disney rather famously had himself (or part of himself…) cryogenicly frozen after his death in the 60’s, but do we know of anyone associated with the science fiction world who did the same, or who at least persued it with any degree of seriousness? Somehow it seems to me that Robert A. Heinlein might have been attracted to cryogenics. And though I don’t suppose we know for certain what happened to L. Ron Hubbard’s mortal remains, it wouldn’t surprise me very much to learn that the Church of Scientology had Hubbard frozen.

    It might someday turn out to be very surprising indeed to see who really has the last laugh after all.

    Curt Phillips

  5. Anton Sherwood says:

    Ralph Merkle’s formula has charm: “We know what happens to the control group. They die, permanently. So do you want to be in the experimental group or the control group?”