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Isaac Asimov's Cryogenic Predictions

Isaac Asimov hypothesized that cryogenic preservation may not be as far away as it seems, or without some cons.

By Isaac AsimovPublished 8 years ago 14 min read

Below is an article by Isaac Asimov written exclusively for Penthouse magazine's December 1972 issue, originally titled "See You in the Hereafter."

Who's for immortality? Who wants to live forever? There's a way, some people think. Since 1967, 15 hopeful deceased in the US are reported to have begun giving it a try.

First you die, but you get yourself frozen in liquid nitrogen immediately after death. Liquid nitrogen will keep you unchanged at roughly 200 degrees below zero centigrade, or 320 below zero Fahrenheit. Once you're that cold you will deteriorate no further, and your body will keep indefinitely. Then, there comes a time when whatever it was that killed you becomes curable. It may be 100 years hence, 500 years hence, but the doctors bring you back to life and give you the cure. You can then go right on living.

What have you got to lose? You won't have to live tediously through the waiting. However long it may be, it will seem to you to have passed in a flash. You will close your eyes in death and open them in life in the space of a wink. In fact, the longer the wait, the more interesting the future you enter.

Of course, it will cost a little money. Everything does. It will cost $30 a year to belong to the society that arranges this: $8,500 for the initial freezing, and $1,000 a year to maintain it. And maybe expenses will go up with time; everything does. But what of it? So you lose a little money. How does that compare with your life?

Photo via Cryonics

Any Catch?

Well, once you're dead, are you sure that your descendants will keep your immortal remains freezing? It could take a really long time for the doctors of the future to get round to you. Your sons and daughters, maybe even your grandchildren, might be filial enough to devote some funding to your frozen meat, but—humanity being what it is—how far can you trust your great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren? It's true you can establish a trust fund designed to keep you frozen in perpetuity. That amount of money, however, will not be available for passing on to your children and the young skunks may be ungrateful, so don't put them in charge. Pick some impersonal bank.

Then suppose the kids in turn get their own bodies frozen, each with a trust fund. More money will be removed permanently from the family fortune, though that's not your worry. But if this sort of thing gets popular and more and more people decide to freeze themselves—thousands, millions—it may be that the world will become full of banks upon banks of cylinders, all filled with liquid nitrogen, all outfitted with refrigerating devices keeping them forever cold and consuming large quantities of energy. All of us will be watching over our dead in the hope that our own descendants will watch over us just as carefully. It will be a death-centered society, like the Egyptians', except that they only built pyramids, and used chemical mummification instead of liquid nitrogen-mummification.

Of course the number of freeze cylinders won't increase forever. Someday doctors will start bringing the dead back to life. Or, at least, that's the idea. If we wanted to be pessimistic, however, we could say that although some simple cells (even some simple human cells) can be frozen while in a state of vigor and then brought back to life, no one has succeeded in doing it to large organisms of anywhere near the complexity of man (especially of a man who is not in youthful vigor, but who has just died of a disease, or an accident, or old age, that has reduced his body to a state of serious disorganization). There is no real hope, in fact, that it can ever be done.

Image via Movie Pilot

Freezing in the Future

Still, turning our thoughts upward, suppose mankind learns someday to restore the spark of life to a body, however decayed, however smashed, however disease-riddled. Let's even guess when this might happen. Let's say year 2500—that's a nice round year, not so close as to be ridiculous, not so far away as to be hopeless. It means that people frozen now will have to pass away their dreamless sleep for a little over five centuries. Not bad.

How many cylinders of frozen bodies will be around by 2500 do you suppose? Very likely, only a few. The process is expensive and, as the years go on, people may lose heart. Perhaps only 1,000 will have been frozen and maintained and waiting. In that case, the whole movement will not have been important. On the other hand, the process could grow popular, and become a runaway fad, with cheap methods for freezing wholesale and national trusts set up for maintenance. Even so, let's not suppose everybody gets frozen. Let's suppose only one out of 100 does.

Well, remember that right now about 70 million people die each year in the world, and that if this figure stays the same every year up to 2500, then there will be 370 million people soaking in liquid nitrogen by that year and waiting for the blowing of the trumpet of some Secular Gabriel. That's one-tenth of the present population of the world.

So year 2500 comes and the doctors now have the ability to restore life to the waiting 370 million. The question is, will they? We can see the advantages of course. They could revive some individual from 1972 and another from 1998 and still another from 2045 and so on.

Think of the historical value of probing up to poster size; the first-hand information they could get of past mores, customs; the reminiscences of famous men who influence history (if those men were frozen or of reminiscences about them, if they were not.)

Image via Venture Beat

370 New Settlers

But the question is: Will all 370 million be revived? Can we seriously imagine that the people of 2500 will be delighted to make room for 370 million, find them all houses and jobs, give them all job-training and teach them to live in a new society?

If you are uncertain of what their attitude would be, ask what our attitude would be. Suppose we had 370 million people who had lived anywhere from a generation ago to the time of the generation of Christopher Columbus, and we could revive them and make them part of our society. How would you vote? Do we have room for them? Can we find jobs for them? Would the unions object? What about housing? Who would teach them to use internal plumbing and explain to them why their religious views will no longer do?

It could be done, I'm sure. But would you vote to take the trouble, or avoid it by just letting them sleep in their cylinders.

Would you be interested in picking and choosing and bringing back a few great men anyway? Suppose you could do it today. You could bring back Eisenhower, F.D. Roosevelt, Lincoln, Jefferson, and Washington. Which one would you care to elect president, and how fast would he get used to the modern world so he could even understand what was going on, let alone make decisions? (Let's draw straws to see who explains to Washington that the regulation of stagecoaches is no longer a matter of the first importance.) And what would President Nixon say? How anxious is he to have Eisenhower back?

Image via IndieDB

A Massive Resurrection

Maybe we can't judge the men of 2500 by ourselves. We're mean and selfish and we wouldn't want to absorb 370 million difficult strangers, but the men of 2500 might be different. It would depend on what kind of a world they would have in 2500. Living amid the ruins of a civilization killed by overpopulation, pollution, and nuclear war, what could they do with 370 million people? But we can't argue that way because if civilization is ruined, the technology won't have reached the point of being able to revive the dead.

If the dead are to be revived at all, the world of 2500 must be at a substantially higher technological level than our own. They would have survived the present crisis and have established a world government in which a population plateau has been reached, resources are carefully recycled, ample cheap solar power or fusion power is available, and pollution is controlled. Total world population may be one billion healthy people, well-adjusted to their life. Now that would be just the kind of civilization we would want to come back to life for.

Whatever would the people of such a world want with the frozen dead? They'd have a carefully controlled population level, a carefully engineered environment kept in delicate balance. It could be that the last thing in the world they would want would be to bring back 370 million people from past ages, increase their population by a perilous third, and undertake the colossal task of retraining.

It's arguable that regardless of the difficulties and dangers, they would have to bring back the dead out of simple selfishness. After all, when the men of 2500 die, they would want to be brought back to life someday, too. How could they be sure of being taken care of properly if they themselves had set a callous precedent of ignoring the rights of the waiting dead. Can we really rely on that, though? For a society so advanced in medicine that it can bring back the dead and cure them of whatever ails them could obviously keep those already alive from becoming sick with whatever might kill them. The greater the medical power to restore life, the greater the medical power to stave off death.

In other words, if the world of 2500 could bring us back, they would already have immortality for themselves. The immortality might not be absolute. An occasional individual might die of so intricate a disease or so elaborate an accident that even the men of 2500 could not help; but then a relatively short freezing period might fix that up and produce still additional advances capable of handling the unusual event. As time went on, individuals would have to resort to freezing fewer and fewer times for shorter and shorter intervals and, in general, we can say the world of 2500 was immortal enough.

If they have immortality for themselves, they don't have to worry about what is going to happen to them when they are frozen, so they don't have the selfish motivation required to revive the dead. And they might prefer to keep their world comfortable and not concern themselves with 370 million dead. What would you do if you were they?

True, the men of 2500 might be such humanitarians that they found themselves unable to ignore the waiting dead. They couldn't wake them all at one time, but they might decide they could handle 10,000 a year—revive them, absorb them, teach them, and make them members of 26th-century society. At the rate of 10,000 a year, it would take 37,000 years to complete the job, but what's time to an immortal?

Photo via Bustle

Retraining the Dead

So in the end there are 370 million revivees, most of them 70 years old or more, with heart-valves patched up, muscles shrunken, joints rusty—But no, we mustn't argue like that. If we're going to have faith, we must have lots of faith. If we assume that men have attained a level of medical technology capable of returning life to the frozen hulk of a cancer-ravaged body—and curing the cancer, too—then obviously they can cure old age as well. All the bodies brought back will be adjusted to the prime of life; all will be strong, good-looking, and ready to take their place in the new society.

And what about the brains? They would be crammed full of memories, associations, conditionings—everything designed to suit them for the old life. Would it not be hard to uncondition and recondition them, unassociate and reassociate them? Would they ever attain the level of adjustment to the society that the native-born would have attained? Would they not always be second-class citizens, greenhorns, people speaking and thinking with an accent?

Silly fears when we're speaking of medical supermen. The brains will be dry cleaned. Nobody today can conceive any possible way in which this can be done, but the people of 2500 will know. They'll take out all the old thinking-chains and present the revived individual to the new world with a bright new, spanking-clean brain, ready for anything. The trouble is, if we take out too much, there will be lost all the old-world memories, and the revived person will be, to himself, a new person with a memory that does not go past the present world he finds himself in. The old person who paid for all that freezing might as well be dead. The body is back, but not the person.

We will just have to leave enough basic information so that the revived body can feel a kinship with the body that was once frozen, and then he'll melt into the new society. Anyway, after that, no one will need freezing anymore. The whole episode of freezing will have proved to be a temporary episode in human history. In the passage from mortality to immortality, there will have been an intermediate period of delayed immortality, and some lucky people who chose the pathway of freezing will have jumped the gap of time and joined the fortunate and great generation of mankind.

And it will be the last generation, for it will be the generation that will live forever and that will therefore have no babies (unless they decide to colonize the Moon and Mars and have enough babies to replace those who travel to other worlds).

Won't it be great? Immortality at last? Life forever? No dear ones dying? Of course, after you get to be about 300 years old or so, you may be awfully tired of all your friends and lovers. They will surely have said everything they could possibly have to say about 10 times over. You will have, too. In short, a world of immortals would be a world of boredom intensified past endurance. I'm judging from my observation of what happens to the average person on a rainy Sunday afternoon when the TV goes on the blink. The capacity for boredom in three dull hours gives a hint of the colossal height it can reach in hundreds of dull years.

I've forgotten! The immortals have the powers of unclouding men's minds. Every one of them can go to the mind-plants every half century or so and get all the clogged passageways unclogged. Each can start all over again as a bright teenager, brain-wise, with, of course, all his basics retained so that he knows he's the same person. Then he can learn again, enjoy again, delight again—and end after a while, as the same bore he was before, because he has the same brain he had before.

Image via Deviant Art

Intolerable Immortality

If immortality were possible, no one, I suspect very strongly, would take it for long. At varying periods for different individuals, there would be suicide, and this might increase in popularity to the point where the race would dwindle and shrivel and die—not even with a whimper, but a sigh. Must we say goodbye to immortality, then. Not at all, for we are immortal, not as individuals, but as part of life. Life has lasted for 3 billion years now and since every speck of life comes from a pre-existing speck, there has been a continuous and unbroken thread of it all those billions of years now; and who knows how long it will stretch into the future.

This kind of immortality involves a continuous turnover of individuals of all kinds. We don't have to imagine immortals with the capacity of cleaning out old brains and setting up young ones again. We all have that capacity right now. Every time any of us produces a baby, we have produced a young brain, one that has never existed before. Every generation we produce quantities of new babies with new brains (billions of them in the present generation) and every generation these are sifted by the difficulties of life so that only the most suitable or the most resilient or the most versatile or the most something survive to pass on their genetic material in still new combinations to their descendants.

Through this shuffling and reshuffling of genes and chromosomes, evolution occurs. In the space of a few hundred thousand years, for instance, the brain of the human-like creatures tripled in size and made us what we are today (such as we are). If, for the same period of time, individual immortality had prevailed, there would have been only a single generation getting its brains dry-cleaned periodically—no advance, no change.

Photo via The New York Times

A Time for Dying

So what are we struggling for? As individuals, we have the right to demand better health, freedom from pain and weakness and depression, active minds and vigorous bodies into old age. But have we a right to demand immortality?

No—for that would be a betrayal of the species.

A serene and peaceful death when the time comes is the proper contribution an individual can make to the species that gave him life.

So I have no intention of having myself frozen in the hope of snatching additional life, at the cost of money and energy that can be put to better use, at the cost of intruding on a future generation that will not want me, at the cost of contributing to the stagnation of mankind. Better, when my time comes, to go with as much of a smile as I can manage and with the hope that others better than myself will take my place and others better than them will take theirs. And so on forever without end.


About the Creator

Isaac Asimov

Published his first novel in 1950. Penned nearly 500 books, including influential sci-fi works like I, Robot and the Foundation trilogy. (1920-1992)

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