“Cryonics: The Next Step” was a featured article in the December issue of Cryonics Magazine.
Cryonics has been the subject of countless fictional movies, television shows, comic books, and novels. And why not? The idea of dying and being brought back to life at some time in the future is a fascinating concept – for any culture. As new technologies prolong and save lives it is easy to imagine that a full cryonics solution may not be too far out of our grasp.
The idea of reanimating a human is science fiction, for now, but the pace of medical innovation is inspiring. Advancements like therapeutic hypothermia, where active medical treatments maintain a particular body temperature to improve survival in a traumatic emergency, demonstrate the potential of using cold temperatures to prolong lives.
Until that breakthrough happens we let Hollywood producers and writers dazzle us with imaginative and futuristic worlds while we wait for the science to catch up to the science fiction.
Weeping Water: a Novel
As a writer, I embraced the idea of cryonics as the subject for my first novel, Weeping Water. The story takes place in the not-too-distant future when cryonic reanimation is a refined process and commonplace. It is a booming new industry that is plagued with the growing pains of any new venture like corporate greed and political influence. The two main characters Annie and Elliot, died in different decades but have been reanimated at the same time. The story follows their struggles re-integrating into society and adapting to their new world where their freedom is not guaranteed.
Weeping Water isn’t about the technology of cryonics so much as it is about people from different walks of life and how they would be influenced by this new miraculous but disruptive technology.
While exploring ideas for this book I first I imagined writing a story about the first person who was successfully reanimated in the context of our modern world. What an interesting idea! There are a few things that have really captured the imagination of the entire world – Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, the young man standing in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square and the end of World War II. There will be more of these someday; the first human to walk on Mars, the Earth’s first contact with an alien civilization and I expect that the first human to be reanimated will be among those landmark moments.
While that idea would make for an interesting story, for me it was the ‘what happens next’ question that really fascinated me as a writer.
First thing I did was look for some context. In 1996 a sheep named Dolly was the first successfully cloned animal. There was instantaneous praise from a portion of the scientific community just as there was condemnation from other scientific organizations. A debate was stirred up, followed by a series of ethical questions about cloning and whether or not scientists should experiment with human cells. In 2005, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a ‘Declaration on Human Cloning’ that prohibited all forms of human cloning, describing the concept as “incompatible with human dignity and the protection of human life.”
Cryonics may not have these same ethical issues, but as my book points out, bringing a human back to life is just the first step. What happens after they open their eyes again? That’s the next step.
To be clear, Weeping Water does not take a stand against cryonics, it simply asks the questions and lets the reader determine whether or not these bigger issues are legitimate.
A few years ago I was reading an article about vitrification. The idea of using a chemical treatment to protect human cells from the damage of cold temperatures. It was an interesting technology. I had no idea that if you just placed a human into liquid nitrogen their cells would flash freeze and the ice crystals would damage or destroy the cells. Obviously, in this scenario reanimation would be extremely difficult. But vitrification seemed to be a potential workaround to one of the bigger challenges of bringing a human back to life.
Up until I read this article, my only exposure to cryonics was through films such as Woody Allen’s Sleeper and the Tom Cruise drama, Vanilla Sky. But this article was technical and opened my eyes to real progress that was happening. This industry was moving forward and so I thought to myself as a writer, what if someday in the near future, this actually happened. What would that world look like? You wouldn’t just bring back one person. After the first person was reanimated, millions of people would suddenly sit up and take notice.
The moment a medical journal or private organization like the Cryonics Institute announced the successful reanimation of a human being it would dominate international headlines, social media and conversations around water coolers in every corner of the world. An industry would be created in an instant. People around the world would sign-up knowing that the possibilities of prolonged life or a second chance awaited them. Potential customers would increase their life insurance to pay for the procedure and life insurance companies would likely raise their rates accordingly. Companies would be fighting for patents or technology licences. The government would get involved, albeit slowly. Eventually, they would impose regulations and pass laws.
Smaller industries would likely spin off – insurance, lawyers defending the rights of the formerly deceased, psychiatrists would likely have to create new treatments for patients with post-reanimation trauma disorder and no doubt a reality TV show following recently reanimated people as they re-integrate into society would be created.
It was these ideas that inspired me to write Weeping Water. The more I considered the idea the more it became obvious that this book had many different stories to tell.
At first I put myself in the position of someone who had been reanimated. Once you opened your eyes and were lucid enough to put thoughts together – you would wonder and be amazed that you were alive again. I have a feeling this would only last for a short period of time because after that reality set in, you would be looking for your loved ones; family, spouses, children and friends.
The relationships you had with loved ones could determine if you were able to embrace your new life or send you into a deep depression. If your reanimation didn’t occur for hundreds years you would have to just get over it. Maybe you had accepted this reality before you had passed away. But imagine twenty, thirty or even fifty years after your death you return to a world where your family, your kids, friends; have grown old, lived their lives, retired and maybe even passed away themselves. You’re still the same age but now your children are older than you. How do you reunite with those people? How do you reconnect with them in a meaningful way? After any long period of absence, it would be traumatic, no matter how prepared you were.
Political Influence and Corporate Management
Any popular technology or product invites competition and a revolution in cryonics would be no different. A successful reanimation would not only inspire entrepreneurs it would also spawn a series of related industries.
As the CEO of the company owned this technology you would have a monopoly and therefore charge anything you wanted for this service. After all, you can’t put a price on seeing loved ones again. But as newer competitive technologies emerged over time, the competition would force your company to focus more on the bottom line and begin cutting costs. But where? Certainly the executives that ran the company wouldn’t take a pay cut. So it would be people lower on the corporate food chain – maybe the Doctors and Nurses that eased the patients back to a healthy life. Cut too much and you couldn’t afford the best doctors anymore and then you might have subpar professionals that might reduce the successful yields of reanimation.
In the United States there would likely be lobbyists working behind the scenes to get laws passed that would prevent competition and ensure relaxed laws or tighter laws whichever benefitted your company.
Capitalizing on technology is not a bad thing, it drives innovation. But there is nothing to say that this industry as a business wouldn’t be unlike any others.
There is also the consideration of how it would affect the larger health care system. Imagine how an online company like Uber has disrupted the transportation system of every large city in the world. There are battles going on in City Halls across the country trying to adapt and put laws into place that allow Uber to compete with taxi services. And that is just transportation. A company that owned the reanimation technology might spin that off into other unforeseen medical technologies – this could cause patent battles, technology licencing, inviting excessive government regulations or maybe worse, no government intervention.
And that’s just in the United States! In China there are no enforceable trademark laws or intellectual property protections. Ill-equipped businesses would likely undercut Western technology and offer a lower quality service for a much lower price.
Science and science fiction work in synergy – science makes discoveries and science fiction writers extrapolate that technology into an imaginative futuristic world where new and exciting things happen. Science in return can be inspired by what writers imagine and turn those ideas into reality.
Throughout Isaac Asimov’s writing career, he wrote of outlandish technologies in his books: video calling, microwave ovens, self-driving cars, LCD TVs, some of these as early as 1964. Of cryonics Asimov famously said, “Though no one can quantify the probability of cryonics working, I estimate it is at least 90%…”
If the mind of writers like Isaac Asimov can look out decades into the future and predict things like self-driving cars then who is to say that cryonics won’t happen, but when it does we just need to be sure we are ready to take that next step.