Humanity has always been fascinated by the idea of resurrecting the dead. In classics like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, human resurrection moved from the realm of myth to that of science fiction thanks to the advent of electricity and the industrial revolution. One increasingly prevalent method of facilitating resurrection in sci-fi is cryonics. Though a common hallmark of technological advancement in a number of futuristic worlds, few writers have contemplated the larger implications of its addition to the average person’s end of life options. Science fiction author Lois McMaster Bujold, however, has tangled with the social implications and hazards of cryonics—she has in fact written a novel almost entirely dedicated to an exploration of the subject.
Since the early 1920s, cryonic preservation has been one of the most popular technological solutions to the desire for resurrection, and has been featured in a number of science fiction books, television series, and films. For those unfamiliar with the art of making human popsicles, cryonics is the low-temperature preservation of human brain and body tissue after death, with the goal of eventual revival pending technological advances. In a number of futuristic sci-fi pieces, cryonic preservation and resuscitation are routine medical procedures. Some famous recent examples include Interstellar, which featured cryosleep, the suspension of healthy humans to avoid aging; 2001: A Space Odyssey, which proved you should never trust a computer with deep-frozen humans; and the second installment of the Star Trek reboot.
The vast majority of writers tend to use cryonics to place a contemporary person in a futuristic society (in the original Planet of the Apes, for instance) or, in the case of Star Trek, to allow for the speedy revival of the franchise character. Cryonics is thus used only as a vehicle. In some cases it’s used to allow for a connection between contemporary readers and the main character and to simplify exposition (it’s much easier to justify having a narrating character go on for a page about the cool society you’ve written into existence when they have to explain things to a two-hundred-year-old reanimated popsicle). Or, it allows for a main character to be killed off temporarily.
Bujold, however, does a much deeper analysis of cryonics in her Hugo Award-nominated novel, Cryoburn. Set on the planet Kibou-daini, it features her most well-known protagonist, Miles Vorkosigan. In his capacity as Imperial Auditor (a kind of high-level investigator and troubleshooter) of the planetary government of Barrayar, Miles has been tasked with analyzing the business practices of the White Chrysanthemum Cryonics Corporation, which has recently opened a branch on a Barrayar-controlled world.
In Bujold’s futuristic universe wherein space travel and extensive genetic manipulation are eminently possible, cryonics is also a well-developed field; however, it is mainly used as an emergency medical strategy to stave off brain-death when a person dies in an area where medical help is inaccessible, and is generally short-term. In The Vorkosigan Saga, cryonics is primarily used to attempt to preserve soldiers killed in action for eventual resuscitation.
On Kibou-daini, however, cryonics has become something of a cultural phenomenon. The majority of the planet’s citizens opt for cryopreservation after death, which has led to the proliferation of massive cryonics companies and a number of associated political issues. Kibou-daini can be viewed as the embodiment of a Bujoldian thought-experiment: what would happen in our contemporary society if cryonic technology advanced so as to become both relatively affordable and effective? Bujold also offers her opinions on this thought-experiment via Miles, whose views will determine whether or not his alliance of planets will welcome commercial cryonics.
Centuries of cryonics have deeply altered both the Kibou-daini political and social systems. Cryonic preservation has become more prevalent than life insurance is in their current society, and is viewed as a public service as necessary as healthcare. Like how we pay into retirement plans, most Kibou-danians who can afford it pay yearly fees to cryonics companies, who will preserve them if the worst comes to pass.
This societal setup is not, in of itself, terribly problematic—as one Kibou-daini native notes, the system worked well initially. Kibou’s downfall came when a small number of successful corporations took advantage of the planet’s capitalistic economic system and bought out the majority of the smaller firms. These companies have, correspondingly, grown incredibly powerful as they accumulate both the wealth and influence that comes with caring for the future lives of millions. The resulting corporation-controlled ‘democratic’ political system bears a certain uncanny resemblance to that of modern-day North America. On Kibou-daini, however, the corporations’ political sway is also abetted by a certain legal problem which comes along with advanced cryonics: What constitutes ‘death?’
Under modern definitions, a person is legally dead if their heart stops beating. With technological advances that permit resuscitation of those properly cryofrozen however, this clinical definition of death cannot really be applied. Instead, Kibou-dainians are only considered dead when their brains are so damaged or decomposed that a successful cryo-revival would be impossible. Thus, since they are still technically ‘alive’, cryopreserved Kibou-dainians retain their assets and an important privilege despite their frozen state: their right to vote. As a person in cryonic stasis would have difficulty marking a ballot, their voting proxies (as well as their assets) are kept by their cryonics company. This arrangement is problematic for a number of reasons. Issues of corruption aside, it has also led Kibou-daini into a bizarre situation where, since death rates vastly exceed revival rates, the cryofrozen ‘dead’ can outvote the living via their corporate sponsors.
Bujold thus seems to be critiquing the American capitalistic economy and simultaneously suggesting that, should advanced cryonic technology be developed, its beneficial effects in terms of individual life extension may be offset by negative social effects.
Be sure to check out Part Two of this post!
-Contributed by Chris Boccia
-Illustrated by Lorna Antoniazzi