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Lois McMaster Bujold’s novel Cryoburn discusses a number of social issues that arise in a society in which cryogenic preservation is commonplace.
While driving around Kibou-daini, the planet on which the novel takes place, one of Miles’s retainers notices a discomfiting sign that advertises a gated community in a rather novel way. It asks, “Did you die 100–150 years ago?” His local guide explains that some of the small number of people cryo-revived are not fans of modern Kibou-daini, and try to form enclaves of their age class to maintain isolation from the younger generations. This seems to be a satire of one of the common reasons for undergoing cryonics: the desire to see what sort of future humanity has made for itself. Since we typically associate the progression of centuries with positive social and technological change, one would assume that the future one wakes up into would be an improvement upon the past, but there is no guarantee of this; as Bujold points out, what happens if you don’t like the future? In another instance of wry humour, Bujold also states that some unfrozen customers choose to go back into cryosleep, hoping that they will one day be woken up in a society more to their liking.
Bujold identifies another issue, something often glossed over by a number of sci-fi authors: what happens if the technology, like all human technology, is prone to problems? Upon agreeing to cryonic preservation, prospective clients need to have a lot of trust in their company, since if something goes wrong with the procedure, the clients will never find out.
This very scenario forms a substantial part of Cryoburn’s storyline. Before the events of the novel, one of the largest cryocorps, NewEgypt, developed a bad batch of cryofluid, which, after about thirty years, allowed a set of clients’ bodies to decay until they were unrevivable. Cryofluid, a mixture of various chemicals, is pumped into a person’s blood vessels during preparation for cryonic preservation, which prevents the formation of tissue-damaging ice crystals and assists with the preservation process.
In a move typical of a large corporation, NewEgypt decided to cover up this problem and attempted to sell off the contracts of their unlucky clients. This illustrates not only the problem of allowing corporations to amass vast political power, but also another interesting difficulty with cryogenic technology—humans tend to be short-sighted due to our inherently short life spans. Cryonics, however, operates on the scale of centuries, which makes it a difficult enterprise to maintain, as both the necessary technology and maintenance structures would need to last for an amount of time that is outside the typical human window of understanding.
Bujold also seems to suggest that Kibou-daini’s cryonics may have led to an unhealthy focus on death. Due perhaps in part to the marketing and omnipresence of the cryocorps, Kibou-daini is a world obsessed with cryonics and an ‘afterlife’ so to speak. There is an almost ancient Egyptian fixation with preparing for a future life.
The main antagonist of the story is, fittingly, the NewEgypt cryonics company which preserves its clients in giant pyramids. Even those without the resources to pay for high-quality cryonics try to find some way to get themselves frozen. As Miles notes, “Kibou-daini was a planet so obsessed with cheating death, even the street people managed to scavenge hope” in the form of an unlicensed cryofacility he stumbles upon (Bujold 36). This intense focus on ‘cheating death’ may be responsible for the unfortunate economic conditions of Kibou-daini, as the welfare of the dead seems to be trumping that of the living.
Though her overall picture of a post-cryonic society is quite negative, Bujold does highlight the fascinating possibilities of cryonics to potentially extend lifespans, and likens the cryorevival that she depicts to a technological resurrection. Bujold also suggests that, should cryonics be developed, it will inevitably rise to prominence, due to the human desire for immortality. As Miles also point out, those groups which refuse to undergo cryonics (known on Kibou-daini as the Refusers) will be like religious sects on Earth that practice strict abstinence—by nature of their very beliefs they will cause their own extinction.
How close are we to becoming Kibou-daini? Though cryogenic revival is still very much a technology of the future, cryonic preservation has been going on since 1962. A number of corporations (The Cryonics Institute, Oregon Cryonics, and KrioRus are some of the main ones) offer cryogenic services, and currently around 270 people are being maintained in cryonics facilities. Due to current laws (in America, at least), cryonic preparation can only be started after a person is legally dead. Most cryonics companies offer two types of preservation: head and whole body. Head (or neuropreservation) is the simpler of the two options, as there is less tissue to prepare; however, corpses prepared this way would require technology that could provide a new body for their use.
After a client’s death, all their blood is drained from their body and replaced with specially formulated cryoprotectant fluid containing various anti-freeze chemicals that are intended to reduce ice crystal formation in blood vessels. The client’s body is then gradually frozen and stored at around -196 degrees Celsius. At present, cryonic preparation is quite a complex operation, and requires a team of surgeons. This, combined with the need to wait for legal death, can increase the cost of cryonics, as the client must pay for a team of cryogenic surgeons to be nearby when they are on their deathbed. Preservation typically costs between $12,000 (for neuropreservation only) and $800,000 for full body preservation from a top of the line company. These costs are one-time payments (though one can arrange a yearly plan before one’s death) as yearly payments after death are obviously problematic.
People who undergo cryonic preservation now are banking on the eventual development of a number of theoretical technologies. These include advanced nanobots capable of regenerating body tissue, medical advances in curing diseases, android technology, and mind uploading (a theoretical technique wherein a person’s mind and memories would be scanned and transferred into the medium of computer magnetic memory). Outliving ourselves may not just be the stuff of sci-fi anymore.
-Contributed by Chris Boccia