Friday, January 11, 2008

Waking in the Future

In her current net.wars column for NewsWirelessNet, journalist Wendy Grossman reports on her visit to cryonics giant Alcor. She points out that many of the ethical issues that arise from freezing then thawing individuals have been tackled in science fiction.

I think the first time I ever heard of anything like cryonics was Woody Allen's movie Sleeper. Reading about it as a serious proposition came nearly 20 years later, in Ed Regis's 1992 book [Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition]. Regis's book, which I reviewed for New Scientist, was a vivid ramble through the outer fringes of science, which he dubbed "fin-de-si├Ęcle hubris".

My view hasn't changed: since cremation and burial both carry a chance of revival of zero, cryonics has to do hardly anything to offer better odds, no matter how slight.

But it remains a contentious idea. Isaac Asimov, for example, was against it, at least for himself. The science fiction I read as a teenager was filled with overpopulated earths covered in giant blocks of one-room apartments and people who lived on synthetic food because there was no longer the space or ability to grow enough of the real stuff. And we're going to add long-dead people as well?

What kind of issue comes up when you mention cryonics. Isn't it selfish? Or expensive? Or an imposition on future generations? What would the revived person would live on, given their outdated skills. Supposing you wake up a slave?

Many of these issues have been considered, if not by cryonicists themselves for purely practical reasons then by sf writers. Robert A. Heinlein's 1957 book [The Door Into Summer] had its protagonist involuntarily frozen and deposited into the future with no assets and no employment prospects, given that his engineering background was 30 years out of date. Larry Niven's 1991 short story "Rammer" had its hero revived into the mind-blanked body of a criminal and sent out as a starship pilot by a society that would have calmly vaped his personality in its turn, and replaced it with the next one if he were found unsuitable (Niven was also, by the way, the writer who coined the descriptor "corpsicle" for the cryopreserved). Even Woody Allen's Miles Monroe woke up in danger.

Grossman argues that the cryonics companies do take the possibly negative ramifications of the technology to heart since their board members intend to be cryopreserved themselves. I suppose only time will tell.

And Grossman leaves out one of the positive cryonics stories: Futurama. Fry leaves his job as a 20th century New York pizza delivery boy and wakes in the year 3000 to find friendship and occasional love as an interplanetary delivery boy. To me that would be the best case scenario: waking in the future and finding your niche.

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