The Wrath of Khan

IMDb
Image from imdb.com

How do you feel, Jim?”

 

Did you ever read a book or watch a movie as a kid and think, “Hot diggity, that was great!”, only to leave it for a long time, get some grey in your hair (seven hairs exactly), and then come back to that movie you loved as a kid only to finally realise how brilliant it was?

Okay, maybe that was a bit specific. But that is my experience with what is undeniably the best of the Star Trek movies: The Wrath of Khan (1982).

When I was little, I could only appreciate how fun the movie was. I wasn’t equipped to appreciate how Nicholas Meyer paints his space opera of revenge with themes from classic literature. I can now.

After Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) failed to gain the box office numbers that Paramount wanted, The Wrath of Khan was given a much slimmer budget (11 million US dollars to the first movie’s 35 million). Screenwriter Nicholas Meyer was brought in to create a sequel to the plot of the 1967 Star Trek episode Space Seed. The result saw Kirk, Spock, and the crew of the Enterprise fighting against the wit of Khan Noonien Singh (played by the brilliant Ricardo Montalbán, who insisted that his chest be visible at all times). The reduced budget meant that this movie was shot in a series of tight angles and close ups. The acting, and the script, had to rise above the special effects.

trekcore
Image from trekcore.com

The movie opens with Star Trek’s Catch-22, The Kobayashi Maru. The young Vulcan trainee Saavik is sitting in the captain’s chair, trying to rescue a ship. Klingons attack. The ship is destroyed. We see Spock, Uhura, Solo, and Bones. Everybody dies. End simulation. Enter Admiral James T. Kirk. Thus the movie starts with the idea that at some point, we must all face a no win scenario.

I have no problem saying that this movie is William Shatner’s best run as Kirk. Never before or again is this character so nuanced or layered. “How do you feel?” Bones asks near the beginning of the film.

Old,” Kirk says. Shatner’s delivery of the line and the tired, grim look on his face say more than I ever could.

And so begins the literary themes of Wrath of Khan, with Kirk’s journey through the conflict of Peter Pan. He is no longer the young flying adventurer he once was. Kirk is afraid to grow up. This is contrasted beautifully with Khan, the superhuman who does not age. Themes of aging, sacrifice, and death are the blood of this movie, running throughout every scene as Kirk and his companions have to face that old inevitability of the no-win scenario. And if aging and sacrifice are the blood of the movie, then revenge and obsession are the bones (no pun intended, Dr. McCoy). Nicholas Meyer, the literature expert and author that he is, makes it easy for us. Let’s look at the books on Khan’s shelf:

thegeektwins.blogspot
Image from thegeektwins.blogspot.com

Shakespeare’s King Lear, Milton’s Paradise Lost, The Holy Bible, Dante’s Inferno, and Melville’s Moby Dick.

Yeah, okay, it doesn’t take a genius to spot the tribute this movie pays to Moby Dick. Khan literally hunts Kirk to the point of self-destruction while quoting Melville’s classic. Similarly, the reference to the bible is pretty easy to spot. Everybody is fighting over the invention of Dr. Carol Marcus, called Genesis, a device that can literally make new life by creating an entirely new planet, though interestingly it first has to destroy whatever is already there.

But for Paradise Lost and Dante’s Inferno, you might have to look a little deeper. Because of course, this is the second appearance of Khan Noonien Singh. In his original TV appearance in Space Seed, Khan is cast out of the enterprise for attempting to take over the ship and kill the crew. He and his followers are abandoned on an empty planet. When Kirk asks if this will be preferable to imprisonment, Khan answers, “Tis better to rule in hell, than serve in heaven.”

So if Space Seed is Satan being cast out of heaven, then Wrath of Khan is definitely the devil rising from the pit to war with God. Is Kirk God for the purposes of this story? Um… I’m not sure how to answer that on the off-chance either William Shatner or George Takei ever read this and explode (each for completely different reasons).

As for King Lear: Kirk is the king, and has been the king for far too long, and Khan has come to bring down the kingdom, only to ultimately fail.

What runs through all of these great works are the themes of revenge, sacrifice, and loss. The most famous line of the movie is not a reference to what has come before, but of course Spock’s iconic “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.”

This is repeated twice throughout the film, once far closer to the beginning, and then at the end, in Spock’s death scene (AKA the most well done death scene in modern cinema). That is what links all of these stories. Khan forced his crew to hunt for Kirk, putting his needs above theirs, and they all die for it. Spock chose to die, putting the needs of his crew above his own. In this, Spock takes a step forward and manages what none of these classics of literature ever managed to do: he beats The Kobayashi Maru test. Self-sacrifice was the thing that never occurred to the characters in Moby Dick, or Lear or Paradise Lost.

swiftfilm
Image from swiftfilm.com

All of this is bookmarked by themes of aging. Yes, the crew of the enterprise are getting older. Yes, Jim Kirk is not the young man he was in 1966. Instead of ignoring the aging of its actors, this movie actually makes it integral to the plot. Kirk’s fear of aging, of becoming irrelevant and outdated, is even juxtaposed by the superhuman that is Khan, who refuses to ever age or die, and whose chest is still shiny and visible at all times.

Kirk admits at the end of the movie that he has never faced death. “Not like this,” he says. At this point Kirk has beaten the adversary who rose up from hell. He has watched the creation of new life with Genesis. He has found a new reality as a parent, and Spock is dead. This is all what makes Star Trek II the best movie of the franchise. It is a fascinating character study layered with a reverence for literature and the themes of loss and revenge.

How do you feel, Jim?” asks Bones McCoy at the beginning and the end of the film. In the beginning, Kirk is beginning to feel his age, being left behind by a newer, younger generation. At the end, Kirk has lost his best friend, and watched as a new planet roared to life. This is the most complicated and nuanced the character has ever been, or ever will be again.

Young,” he says in the end.

I feel young.”

scifanatic
Image from scifanatic.com

-Contributed by Ben Ghan

Advertisements

What does Mars tell us in The Martian?

This post contains spoilers.

THE MARTIAN illustration
Illustration by Shayla Sabada

Imagine this: you are stranded on a distant planet without water, food, internet access, your smartphone, or even other humans. What crosses your mind first? Of course, you want to survive. Maybe your goal is to find a way to reconnect with the Earth, or perhaps you’d prefer to settle down in this foreign land and crown yourself as its first ruler.

Matt Damon does both in The Martian, a sci-fi adventure blockbuster brought to you by Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner, Prometheus). The movie is based on the novel of the same name by Andy Weir. Weir’s first novel was self-published in 2011, and soon topped the Kindle sales chart. Well-researched yet fantastical, Weir blends real science and fiction without sacrificing either one for the sake of trying to be more entertaining.

On the eighteenth Martian day, or sol, of the Ares III manned mission to Mars, Astronaut Mark Watney (Damon) is separated from the rest of his team, the other members of which are forced to evacuate the planet when it is hit by a sudden sand storm. While everyone on Earth (including NASA and his teammates) presumes that he is dead, Watney wakes up the next day impaled by an antenna in his abdomen, finding himself to have been abandoned. Being left behind on Mars might suck for many reasons, but Damon’s character doesn’t drown himself in self-pity. Instead, he decides to ‘science the sh*t’ out of every single resource he is left with on the Red Planet.

The next NASA manned mission to Mars is four years away, which means nobody will notice Watney until 1460 Earth days later. It is frightening, but the good-humored and strong-willed Watney does not just curse Mars and then cry until he cannot breathe. Thankfully, the astronaut was a botanist back on Earth, and he manages to cultivate four hundred and something sols worth of potatoes using his own feces and the universally scarce resource that is water. Meanwhile, Watney has to figure out how to regain contact with NASA and find a route to the spot closest to the landing site of Ares IV in the hopes that he will be picked up and brought back to Earth. Thanks to Watney’s super-brain, he translates his scientific knowledge into creative engineering, which ultimately saves his life.

Despite Watney having devised a comprehensive plan to keep himself alive on the Red Planet, those four hundred sols are riddled with frustration and uncertainty. Watney’s courage and endurance are tested as he struggles to overcome the volatility of Mars.

How should he positively deal with the decompression of the airlock on the habitat which blows up his shelter and kills all his crops inside? When the crew returns to Mars to rescue Watney, how can he ensure his vehicle achieves the necessary altitude to intercept the spaceship?

Undoubtedly, one could very quickly get discouraged in such situations. However, Watney is the poster-boy of human ingenuity, and his cool-headedness and optimism are qualities that audiences should take home with them. He does not beat himself up for miscalculating the amount of heat needed to create water by burning hydrazine rocket fuel (OK, well, he does—for like one or two seconds). He even jokes that he has colonized Mars, because he cultivates crops on its soil. Weir’s character lives up to the idea of “Keep Calm and Carry On” brilliantly.

Loneliness is hard to cope with, but Watney keeps his mind active on Mars by recording daily video logs. Scott shrewdly grants the video logs the dual purposes of allowing Watney to explain complicated scientific ideas in plain language while also giving the audience a chance to get a closer look at the intimate side of the character.

Besides recording what he is going to do next, Watney complains about the poor musical taste of the mission commander (played by Jessica Chastain) while blasting her old-school disco music collection in the background during his recording. This is just a little comic relief, which gives you a break from feeling bad for the poor guy.

Regarding the purpose of the recordings on a broader scope, they show that it is important for us as humans to learn how to cope with loneliness. Watney learns this incredible lesson, but we all do not get a chance to experience what he goes through—nor do we want to.  Not everyone can dance with loneliness classily, and if you can, that is truly an amazing ability. Human beings rely on the need to belong, but who knows when you will have to be all alone. The movie conveys that coping with loneliness is also a vital survival skill.

The Martian is not a typical Scott movie in terms of its cinematography and script (I had expected the story to be more devastating, to be honest), nor is the movie a typical disaster sci-fi movie. You’re sure to become infatuated with Damon’s charisma during the video logging, and be prepared to get yourself into the nostalgic mood when Gloria Gaynor’s disco dance number “I Will Survive” plays in the background.

-Contributed by Michelle Luk

The Women of Star Wars: Part Two

Be sure to check out the first part of this article, which covers Beru Mars, Mon Mothma, and the slave girls on Tatooine.

Shmi Skywalker

Hoo boy. A Virgin Mary joke here is way too obvious, but suffice it to say, there’s a reason why Phantom Menace is considered to be the absolute worst of the Star Wars movies. Seriously, if you want an example of how threatened the Star Wars movies are by women, just take a second to see if you can slot every female character I’ve talked about into the virgin/whore paradigm. Shmi, of course, is the ultimate example of the virginal mother figure. She’s a character composed entirely out of archetypes with zero personality (this makes Anakin’s later descent into evil less-than believable, because, as we saw with Beru, I don’t think anyone is emotionally invested in her death). If I’m really digging deep here, I can say how I like that she’s not especially good-looking—unlike almost everyone in the prequels, she looks weathered. Her dialogue is terrible, and so is her personality. If Jar Jar Binks didn’t exist, she would be the worst character of the prequels.

Padmé Amidala

Oh, Padmé. Never has a character been such a charisma-suck. You have to feel sorry for Natalie Portman. She did her best with the crap that was handed to her. This character only exists to give a pretext for Anakin’s fall from grace. Not even a good pretext—did anyone else find the reasons behind Anakin’s turn to the dark side completely unbelievable? The original idea—that Anakin was an arrogant, talented man who was seduced by the controlling power of the dark side—seems much more believable than the idea that a good man seriously believed he could save his possibly dying wife by slaughtering a bunch of children. The tragic hubris of the original story is destroyed by this plotline.

Anyway, poor Padmé is a complete failure of a character on almost every level. She has zero personality, and seemingly no failings—besides being completely boring. She’s basically a younger version of Shmi, which admittedly gives Anakin’s obsession with her an intriguingly Freudian component. I could go on for pages and pages about the many failings of Padmé Amidala as a character, but I’m going to zero in on a specific one that has always bugged me: the various costumes this character is forced into. They make no sense and they’re incredibly distracting. I understand that Padmé is a senator, but Leia wasn’t running around in ridiculously elaborate and constricting gowns throughout the original trilogy. Even as a refugee, or when she’s sleeping, Padmé’s costume (including hair and makeup) is exceptionally detailed. This has the unfortunate effect of undermining her credibility, since the script seems invested in making her seem down-to-earth, but the costuming tells a completely different story.

Leia Organa

Into this horribleness comes Leia Organa, a character so good she doesn’t actually seem to belong to this franchise. Leia is sharp, more than a little shrewish, judgmental, and I love her. Leia is such a good character that she single-handedly almost contradicts all previous evidence that Star Wars is a hostile place for female characters. The great thing about Leia is that she is actually a three-dimensional character with idiosyncrasies, flaws, and actual human dialogue.

Rey

This analysis is going to be short, because we know very little about her yet, but I think based on the rest of this article, we can all agree that another interesting female character is long overdue for this franchise. And, good news! Early appearances are promising! She’s wearing clothing that looks similar to Luke Skywalker’s outfit in A New Hope, which leads me to believe that she will going on the same epic hero’s journey.  I was also really excited to see the moment in the trailer when she offers a hand up to John Boyega’s character, Finn. That one gesture has more confidence and agency in it than I’ve ever seen from a woman in Star Wars.

Like almost every other Star Wars fan out there, I apprehensively learnt that Disney had acquired the Star Wars franchise and was planning on expanding the saga. I was even more apprehensive when I learned that J. J. Abrams was directing. I absolutely loathed his adaptations of Star Trek. Wow, were they ever bad—stupid too, which is absolutely unforgiveable when dealing with such a thought-provoking legacy. However, if we’ve learned anything from the prequels, it’s that a proven track record of making great films in a franchise doesn’t stop you from coming back and making terrible ones. So I guess there’s no reason why a man with a proven track record of making terrible franchise films can’t come up with a good one. And we do have Lawrence Kasdan (who also wrote The Empire Strikes Back) writing the script, so that’s not nothing. In the end, it’s really hard to see how Abrams could do worse with Lucas’s legacy than Lucas did himself, so let’s see what the Lost creator comes up with.

-Contributed by Lara Thompson

Music of the Spheres: Sci-Fi Soundtracks and the Classical Tradition

There has always been a connection between space and music despite their differences. Long before the space opera genre rose to prominence, space and music were both viewed as conveyors of awe and mystery, respective wonders of the natural and human worlds. Early medieval musical and academic theory considered music to be a science more than an art—not surprising, given the complex physics behind it. A concept passed down from Pythagoras and other classical philosophers known as “musica universalis” or the “music of the spheres” suggested that each of the planets produces its own sound based on its size and rotation. Similarly, in the physics of music, the length and vibration of a string or pipe determine the sound it produces. While the “music of the spheres” was said to be inaudible to the human ear, it was nonetheless an important philosophical and mathematical concept that brought music to the center of the universe, so to speak.

Besides physics, the mythology of the planets also works its way into music. Western classical music is full of references to classical mythology, which itself brings in much from the sky. Baroque composers in particular were fond of mythology in their music. Many of the gods of the Roman pantheon share names with the planets, leaving deities like Saturn, Jupiter, and Venus scattered throughout music spanning centuries. In 2014, Toronto’s own Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra organized a special event called The Galileo Project: Music of the Spheres, which combined texts from astronomers, baroque music, and images of space in a celebration of the first telescope. We use mythology and music to explore things that are meaningful and fascinating to us, and the universe beyond our planet is near the top of the list.

There are some orchestral motifs that we can’t help but associate with space, and while John Williams’ Star Wars score is partially to blame, there is more history at play. We hear these sounds in incidental and classical music alike: triumphant brass lines mimic the grandeur and glory of space; rapid, fluttering passages of strings and upper woodwinds suggest the anticipation and excitement of going beyond the final frontier; soft, haunting music with unexpected intervals or time signatures, played on rare or even electronic instruments, paints the picture of unexplored new worlds. George Lucas reportedly used orchestral music as inspiration and as a stand-in for the Star Wars soundtrack before Williams’ score was done; Lucas wanted the music to be familiar, as the world of the story was not. So Williams drew from tried-and-true classical motifs and created the most iconic soundtrack ever. (Compare Gustav Holst’s Mercury with “Landspeeder Search/Attack of the Sand” from Star Wars Episode IV).

Arguably the common ancestor to all of these space opera soundtracks is Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite, The Planets. Written in the early twentieth century, Holst portrayed the planets (excluding Earth, as it has little astrological significance, and Pluto, yet to be discovered) according to the emotions and influences associated with them by astrology and hints of mythology. Mars, the Bringer of War is a dark, rhythmic piece, constantly moving. It could play aboard the Death Star and make perfect sense. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity is the most-well known movement of the suite, and features a beautiful moving passage in the middle that was later adapted as a hymn tune. Jupiter is quintessential, containing the “space sounds” of exploration and vastness as well as the most tender, emotional moments of space opera.

Of course, there are instances of classical music directly used in science fiction as well. The opening section of Richard Strauss’ tone poem Thus Spoke Zarathustra is well-known now for its role in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Inspired by the book of the same title by Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra was a ‘soundtrack’ of sorts from the beginning; it was ‘program music’. Both Nietzsche and Kubrick examine similar themes in their respective pieces. The triumphant fanfare mimics the glory of space and the dawn of humanity; it is a celebration of the ingenuity, creation, and wonder to follow.

Program music is orchestral music that tells a narrative. Whereas opera, or anything with text, is direct in its musical storytelling, program music is subtle and open to slightly more interpretation. As large-scale orchestral works became prominent, so too did this kind of musical narrative, like The Planets. Program music also includes symphonic poems, like Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and film music, such as Williams’ soundtracks. Symphonic poems convey a certain story, poem, or work of art, or more abstract narratives like landscapes—operas without words. And once film became a common medium in the twentieth century, program music led to incidental music and soundtracks, highlighting the action on screen.

One does not have to be a musician, or indeed know anything about music, to hear Holst as a precursor to some of John Williams’ soundtracks or the various reincarnations of the Star Wars theme. In our current culture, it could very well be that we associate the orchestral motifs mentioned earlier with space because of the undying popularity of space operas. This is not a bad thing. There is no reason why we shouldn’t access elements of classical music, human emotion, and science this way; the most wonderful thing about culture is that it is constantly reworking and reusing past stories in new contexts. The mystery and beauty music inspires within us is only matched by the mystery and beauty of the unknown—of distant worlds and the infinite reach of the universe.

-Contributed by Risa Ian de Rege

The Women of Star Wars: Part One

Space opera is a fascinating sub-genre of speculative fiction—part science fiction, part Western, and all action. Star Wars is undoubtedly the most famous example of the space opera—rightly so, as it’s fantastic. I’m unabashedly critical of movies, but every time I get to the last thirty minutes of Empire all I can think is, “This is so good.” I’ll give credit to Lucas; I don’t think he wrote Star Wars exclusively for guys. However, anyone who’s ever watched the movies (especially the original trilogy) is struck by how Princess Leia is apparently the only woman in the universe.

Being a woman certainly doesn’t stop me from identifying with Luke Skywalker. He’s a human being, after all, and so am I. But what bothers me is how every female character in Star Wars is incredibly two-dimensional, with the notable exception of Princess Leia. Congratulations Carrie Fisher, you had the unenviable task of carrying the weight of your entire gender on your shoulders and you succeeded admirably.

Rey-Finn-running-
Photo from http://makingstarwars.net

In my opinion, the really stunning moment of the trailer for the new adaptation was the revelation that the new trilogy is going to focus on a female protagonist: Rey. In honour of this overdue leap forward, let’s take a look at the past women of Star Wars.

Beru Lars

It’s never a good sign when the first significant female figure in the series is killed twenty minutes into the first movie and is never mentioned again. Beru and Owen Lars exist to tie Luke Skywalker to Tatooine, and the plot necessitates that they die in order for Luke to relinquish his hold on his old life and start his adventure.

Beru exists as a loving bridge between her husband and her adopted son Luke, who have fundamentally different ideas about what Luke’s future should hold. She is also the one who first points out that Luke “has too much of his father in him,” thus starting a trend throughout all the original films of people remarking that Luke resembles his father. Of course, the horror of that statement is only really revealed in Empire where we learn exactly who it is that Luke resembles so much. Beru exists as a plot device—her death is the tragedy that spurs the hero forward. In that light, it makes thematic sense that not a lot of time is spent establishing her character. Beru does show up in the prequel films as well, but no new information is really given about who she is as a person. Of course, as we’ll see later when we get to Shmi Skywalker, if you don’t establish a character complexly, the audience is not very emotionally invested in their death. This works to the advantage in A New Hope, since it is a light-hearted film, but backfires in Attack of the Clones.

Mon Mothma

Monmothma
Photo from http://starwars.wikia.com/wiki/Mon_Mothma

I decided to include Mon Mothma mostly because she is one of the only women to have ever appeared in the original Star Wars films, and also because she plays such a monumental role in the Expanded Universe. I’m not going to explore the Expanded Universe in this blog post—it exists outside of  the canon for most fans—but it’s important to realize that Mon Mothma is essentially the leader of the rebellion, even in the original films. She has also been the subject of many jokes since she is “the only other woman in the universe” besides Leia. If you haven’t yet checked out the Family Guy parodies of the classic Star Wars films, I highly encourage you to do so, if only because that joke gains especial poignancy when you realize that Angela, Peter’s boss in the cartoon, parodies Mon Mothma and that Angela is voiced by Carrie Fisher herself. Interestingly, in addition to being the only other woman in the universe, Mon Mothma, much like Leia in the first film, is shown almost entirely in white, continuing the trend of female political figures attired in spotless white.

The Slave Girls on Tatooine

Sexual violence is downplayed in Star Wars—with good reason. The sort of trauma that results from rape doesn’t really fit into the Star Wars feel of everything being alright at the end of the day. After all, we never see Luke grieve for his slain relatives ever again and Leia does not even mention Alderaan after the first movie. Leia’s torture in A New Hope is non-sexual (we are even more thankful for this when we realize that Darth Vader, the interrogator, is her father).

However, though it is never explicitly spoken of, there is an undertone of sexual violence in Star Wars. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Jabba’s palace in Return of the Jedi. Slaves are seen dancing for the entertainment of Jabba’s court. In a famous scene, Jabba tries to draw a Twi’lek dancing girl towards him by her neck chain. When she resists his advances, he cuts the chain and throws her down to feed the Rancor. After she is captured, Leia is forced into the famous bikini-outfit, which certainly carries an implication of objectification and potential sexual assault. Jabba licks or kisses her in an off-camera moment (again, he draws her to him by her chains).

Check out my second post, featuring Shmi, Padme, and, of course, Princess Leia!

-Contributed by Lara Thompson

Illustrated by Gwen Wolinsk

More Societal Quirks of Widespread Cryonics and its Contemporary Status

*Scroll down/ click here to read part 1 of this blog*

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

Politics and Popsicles: The Social Effects of Cryogenic Preservation

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.

BACryoburn500

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