Robert C.W. Ettinger

Robert C.W. Ettinger

My friend Bob Ettinger deanimated on Saturday, 23 July, after a prolonged period in hospice care. A tub of crushed ice was by his bedside, and the certificate of death and perfusion of his blood vessels with a chilling solution were expedited. Since then he has been in the “cooling box,” to lower his whole-body temperature to liquid-gas cold.

I first encountered Bob half a century ago, when I was editor of the Galaxy group of magazines and he submitted his paper The Prospect of Immortality to me for publication. He had done his homework, and I had to admit that his proposal of freezing on death, and then being kept in ultra-cold conditions, did seem capable of keeping a corpse from deteriorating for long periods.

Moreover, it seem probable that medical science, which had made such great gains in the century just past, would continue to develop, perhaps to the point of defrosting and repairing the damages caused both by the original cause of death and the act of freezing itself. Put them altogether and his idea seemed to offer not a guarantee, but at least a reasonable gambling bet that the idea might possibly work.

So I published Bob’s essay in one of my magazines, then began publicizing it. I was a regular on Long John Nebel’s radio talk show, and he was glad to schedule several shows about Ettinger’s idea. I was doing occasional writing for Playboy, and when I queried them about an article, they loved the idea, which in turn led to a prolonged interview on the then-dominant Johnny Carson show.

Bob was appreciative of that. So were the action groups that began springing up to put Ettinger’s ideas into practice, and as a reward for my activities, one of them offered me a free freeze, which I declined with thanks.

By then Bob no longer needed me to carry the torch for his idea, and further publicity pieces, including a lead article in Esquire entitled “New Hope for the Dead,” Bob wrote himself. We remained friends, and when Bob came to New York or I visited the Detroit area we usually managed to share a meal, once with his uncle, Pee Wee Russell, one of the most famous clarinetists of the Jazz Age.

I should say that one of the major reasons why we remained good friends was his personality. Bob had a great sense of humor. When I told him what Long John called the people in the deep freeze — “corpsicles” — he got a good laugh out of it and began using the term himself. And once, when I’d asked how many people had signed up, he grinned and paraphrased the Bible: “Many are cold, but few are frozen.”

He was always regretful that I wouldn’t sign up, not for the sake of another scalp to hang but because he believed I was giving up on a tangibly real hope. A few months ago, I got a long, friendly letter from him, doing his best to change my mind. I wrote back at once to say that I hadn’t decided the plan wouldn’t work. I agreed that it had at least a non-zero chance of doing as he hoped. But, I said, although I would give almost anything to stay alive and in good physical condition indefinitely, I wasn’t attracted to the idea of being reborn into a society where I had no role and all the things I cared about had disappeared.

He wrote me one more letter, good-naturedly urging me to change my mind. That was the end.

I still think it’s a reasonable gambling bet. If it turns out it works, I hope Bob will be among the first to demonstrate its success, and I wish him well in that future.

Related post:
Inventing Cryonics


  1. David B. Williams says:

    It may work technically, but it will never work practically. Consider human nature and economics. We’re pushing 6 billion members of our species on this planet. Considering all the new people we have to care for, who’s going to spend millions to revive a corpse who has already enjoyed his alotted lifetime? For what purpose? What could that individual contribute to the Brave New World? And I doubt memories and personality would survive death and frozen storage; meat is one thing, electrochemical connections something else. And the lawyers would get into the act. Does someone declared legally dead have any rights, and which ones? Can he reclaim his legal indentity, and what problems will that create? No, it’s best to let corpsicles lie, as they say.

  2. Gregory Benford says:

    The best case for cryonics is that it allows one to die with hope.

    I wrote a whole novel about the modern cryonics movement, CHILLER, to be reissued this month. It’s sf but grounded in my experiences with the Alcor people in the 1990s. The tech has improved, especially in holding people above the fracture point where the big cell damage occurs — though I don’t know if anyone is actually using it on patients now.

    Still, Fred, would be good to see you up in that vast future…

  3. Stefan Jones says:

    For a while there, SF stories and novels revelled and rooted for cryonics, in the same way that novels of a few years ago revelled and rooted for the notion of the Singularity.

    “I wasn’t attracted to the idea of being reborn into a society where I had no role and all the things I cared about had disappeared.”

    Warren Ellis wrote a fine and shocking comic story about just this; a fictional investigation by gonzo journalist Spider Jerusalem. A somewhere-past-near-future society has the ability to read the memories from the frozen brains of “corpsicles” and transfer them to new bodies. And then . . . abandon them, leaving the youthful, future-shocked resurrected folk to wander the streets.

  4. Bill Goodwin says:

    If anything, I’d expect to wake up in my own youthful body–perhaps even in my childhood bed–and discover in rapid succesion that: A) I was invulnerable. B) I could fly. C) I could move back and forth through my whole life, picking up its thread at any point and going off on whatever new tangent I desired.

    The whole thing would be a simulation of course. Nobody’s going to treat corpsicles in some nutrient vat. If any useful information can be salvaged, it will be through means (and for purposes) very far beyond current imagination.

    Possibly no frozen body will be required at all. You’ve got Frank Tipler’s Omega Point working for you, opening up the entire temporal continuum. Eventually one would find ways through the genetic nodes into other bays and estuaries of selfhood, other personal histories. Or backward to the big bang itself–and then forward into new elaborations of existence. If you look at the universe (or multiverse) as an evolving “soup” of information, it all begins to seem rather inevitable. So I’m not too worried for myself.

    But for Pete’s sake, what is the world going to do without ME?

  5. John Jones says:

    (Disclaimer: paid-up member of CI, because I like the odds compared to the alternative, and I made the arrangements young so it’s meaningless overhead on top of the day-to-day cost of living; also, first-time commenter.)

    David: I think you’re overly pessimistic. I don’t know what the future will bring, but I do know enough about the operational end of cryonics, from sheer self-interest, to think your scenario is improbable.

    As to who’s going to pay for the revivals, that’s what, notionally, most of the money you leave with the organization is for, having been gathering interest in the meantime. Oh, that end might fall victim to any number of less desirable economic circumstances that upend the entire practice, but as long as there’s _something_ left over (and the day-to-day cost of keeping the tanks topped off, which is the dominant ongoing expense, is a hundred dollars or so a year, which can be generated perpetually in interest from a small sum) but you’re still suspended, it can recover given time, and that’s the one thing you have a surplus of.

    Stipulating revival, we generally assume that the cost of revival will drop considerably and quickly. It’s not that one expects to go develop it specially, but that most of the things that would be necessary to make it work (very, very broadly speaking, pushing bits of the body hither and thither, rebuilding some, regenerating others, and the like) are liable to be developed to treat people contemporaneously. The expense here is adapting those existing abilities to this new environment, not inventing them in the first place. If it’s still too expensive, well, that’s the sort of thing the endowment is for: wait a decade or two, see if it’s enough to pay for it now. Time is once more on the side of the suspended person here.

    As to “enjoyed his allotted lifetime”, or “contribute to the Brave New World”, it’s nobody’s business to be making that kind of decision for someone else. (Granted, the rest of society might not be enlightened enough to see that yet, but in that case even if revival would work, you’re not going to know about it, so I see no reason to fret about it here and now.) It’s also vulnerable to human-interest counterattack: in the tanks already, there are (for instance) murder victims, teenagers (both of those, in at least one case), AIDS patients, scientists, housewives, and quite a few people who didn’t end up there because old age managed to catch up with them (not that, I hasten to add, I myself think there’s a damn thing wrong with that as reason). And insofar as I am aware, the *vast* majority are middle-class people of no particular distinction — or opprobrium — not so different from me or thee, not (e.g.) rapacious robber barons who tried to “cheat death” and hope to wreak havoc on a world that’s unprepared for their moral turpitude.

    At least under optimal circumstances, we don’t “freeze” people as such any more, we use vitrification processes that do far, far less structural damage and have nowhere near the kind of effect on the brain that raw freezing does. Again, might still not be enough. But what research we’ve managed to conduct (which I will be the first to admit is but a start) at least makes the supposition that it doesn’t damage the “selfhood” bits of the brain plausible. If that turns out not to be the case, there are other approaches to try, such as chemical plastination.

    What happens when the lawyers whiff it is certainly a concern, but it’s another one largely beyond influence today. I suggest, however, that a fair-minded legal system could assimilate the situation without needlessly stepping on everyone’s toes.

    (Personally, and let me emphasize this just my present gut-level evaluation of the potential for trouble, (a) I expect that technology sufficient to revive, if possible, will arrive and come within the reach of the suspension organizations late within this century or early in the next, providing there are no really bad black swans (by which I mean “asteroid the size of the Chicxulub impactor drops off the eastern seaboard” or “some idiot releases a replicator that thinks its purpose in life is to convert the biosphere into paperclips”, not survivable but nasty things like the IPCC’s worst-case scenario turning out to be a touch optimistic), and (b) the historical growth rate for cryonics organizations, regardless of how they’ve tried to attract members, has been basically linear, which I assume will continue. Given these conditions, by the time it would be an issue to deal with the revived, there aren’t going to be very many more of them in total. Might as easily just sweep the whole thing under the rug as go looking for trouble.)

    Stefan: I share your fondness for that particular issue of Transmetropolitan (at the time I thought it the finest comic I’d read all that year, and when I reread it recently I still thought highly of it), but it’s ultimately shallow, and reads to me as if he took the concept and ran with it for fictional purposes, and nothing more. Speaking for myself, but in this particular matter also for every other cryonicist I know and have discussed it with: if we woke in that situation, we simply wouldn’t *care*. We’d be *alive*, and thereafter ignored is approximately infinitely preferable to, say, “wantonly tortured for entertainment”. Nor would be be alone — we’d have each other. People I’d be proud to call friend have gone into the tanks before me, and people I think of as almost family will either go in before me too, or after me, and whichever one of us goes first, part of the other’s duty and honour as friend is to see that they get into the tanks safely (and if you come out before them, to see that they make it back too). It may be safely said that this view of things, more akin to a mutual-aid society, is not the one generally imagined by the public.

    For our gracious host: long-time admirer of your works, and could not possibly recompense you enough for the pleasure obtained thereby, but (putting my cryonicist hat back on for a moment) if it means anything to you, as long as there are intelligent beings that read, and I’m among them, I will be telling them about your edifying works. (I do that too now of course, since a sale is its own kind of thanks, but there are only so many people I know in the present who haven’t already had books pressed upon them or need no introduction…)

  6. Pat says:

    Feed my corpse to the foxes and give my regards to the heirs of the Earth. I hope they have more control over their instincts, are not blinded by their hopes and fears and treasure the land that is the only known source of chocolate.

  7. Mark Plus says:

    @David B. Williams:

    I have cryonics arrangements with Alcor. And I don’t believe in an “alloter” of lifespans. As for the costs of reviving someone, I noticed that nobody handed those Chilean miners a bill for their rescue when they got to the surface, even though they couldn’t have paid for the expense with their lifetime earnings. (I guess we should only rescue billionaires trapped in mines from now in our times of austerity.) Humans just have a funny thing about valuing other people’s lives.

  8. Mike Darwin says:

    Hello, Fred, this is from Mike Darwin, the guy who made you the offer of a “free freeze” after dinner that night in Louisville, KY in our suite in the Galt House hotel. You were the Guest of Honor at the American Science Fiction Convention in 1978, and we took you to dinner and made you an offer that, as it turned out, you easily could refuse! If you want to read an account of that meeting from the perspective of the cryonics people present at that time, it’s up on line, here: and is entitled, “When You Can’t Even Give it Away – Cryonics and Fred Pohl.

    When you write about Bob Ettinger, “He wrote me one more letter, good-naturedly urging me to change my mind. That was the end,” I would say in response, “Uh, uh, it is much more likely, on the basis of probability alone, that was the end not for Bob, but for *you.*

    Bob and I talked and corresponded about you a number of times over the years. Unlike you, I was not close to Bob, and we were often at odds. Interestingly, one of the few things that ever resulted in a genuine emotional connection between us was the offer we made to cryopreserve you for free. While he was too reserved and diplomatic to say so, your given reason for turning cryonics down, well, to be frank, I think it pissed him off a little. It was apparent that he genuinely liked and admired you and that, maybe just as importantly, he shared a common past with you. You and he grew up in the Golden Age of Science Fiction and you both shared the common narrative and heritage of what is now being called “The Greatest Generation.” The last time I saw Bob, was over dinner a few years ago in Michigan. He was quite frail, but wickedly lucid. I asked him if you were still compos mente and if he was still in touch with you. He sighed, “Yes,” and a “Yes.” And then he momentarily lost his temper, which is something I almost never saw him do. I don’t remember his exact words, but they were pretty to close to this: “I guess he doesn’t think that much of me or of the rest us, because he’s so worried about being alone and displaced from the people he knows and loves now. Doesn’t he think I’ll be there? Doesn’t he think any of the hundred or so others from our generation will be there? And if he does, and he is so worried about loneliness and social isolation, then dammit why doesn’t he come along to keep us company?”

    I thought that was an extraordinarily good question. But logical and emotional arguments aside, it was painfully clear to me that HE WANTED YOU ALONG FOP THE RIDE. I had a hard time holding back the tears, and I had to excuse myself to the men’s room.

    When most men die, their probability for any future goes to zero; in effect, their event horizon collapses. That’s about to happen to you (and to me, and to everyone else). Say what you will, Bob Ettinger now confronts two possibilities – oblivion, or one hell of a really interesting future. A future far more fantastic than anything you or he ever dreamed of, or wrote about. If nothing else, just to have come that far and to be in that position, well, it’s a hell of an accomplishment. And I am very grateful to Bob Ettinger for achieving it, because it opens that possibility to me, as well.

    So, Fred, here’s the deal. Your friend is waiting for you: he damn sure wanted you to embark on the adventure (good or bad) that he has now begun. In fact, he kept at you to go until, literally, almost his last breath for this life cycle. He can’t do it anymore, so I guess it is my turn, once again, to ask you to reconsider and to join your friend and colleague on his journey into the land you both dreamed of when you were young, and in your salad days. Please, reconsider your arguments. It is now for sure you won’t be without a friend and cohort, and I can pretty much guarantee you that your revival won’t take place unless you have a use.
    Finally, I can tell you for a fact that the best use you have is continue living and growing and telling stories. At our core, we humans are ‘store creatures,’ and we will remain so as long we *are* human. It goes without saying that story creatures need storytellers; your job is thus secure.

  9. Dr. R.M.Khattar says:

    Hey Guys Why dont you open an office in India where many Hindus believe in rebirth and afterlife and have plenty of money too.

  10. Pat says:

    Mike, can you really not imagine a future where:

    a) Fred Pohl is the only corpsicle anyone wants to revive (Prisney? Who is this Prisney?*).
    b) the reconstitution/reading/rebuilding is only successful in x% of cases, leaving a random population of defrosts, possibly not including those who knew each other.
    c) a handful of friends and vague acquaintances would not make up for the rich and diverse social life left behind, especially when lived among a society where the language and customs are so altered as to be unrecognisable. (Would you really want to live in a zoo or museum where children could learn from what type of creature humans evolved? Can Fred tell good stories in Sanskrit?)
    d) bottling your relatives became a fad for 200 years and the Earth is destroyed by the overload on its resources of maintaining billions of freezers. The few survivors in Moon tunnels celebrate Survival Day by reviving one of the few corpsicles not turned into food and torturing it in various imaginative high tech ways before tossing a coin-analogue to decide whether to refreeze it or eat it alive.
    e) corpsicles are only revived so they can be used to commit assassinations or clean the trickier sewers as the Eloi are too delicate and the Morlocks are too busy with interesting work?

    Or a present where Fred has made his mind up in possession of all the facts and an imagination sin pareil?

    I must point out that “That was the end.” referred to the end of Bob trying to persuade Fred. Clearly the balance of probability suggests that this is true.

    * Quote from “Allegro non troppo”.

  11. Pat says:

    Oops, “sans pareil”, obviously. I have too many languages and not enough capability.

  12. Jim Flanagan says:

    Mr. Pohl

    BBC just published this slide show on the topic.