Immortality complex: in search of life after death through cryonics

A new Don DeLillo novel explores the implications of cryonics, highlighting the impact similar endeavours could have on the real world.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

The Convergence – a remote compound enshrined in the barren lands of Kazakhstan, whose buildings are in hiding, “agoraphobically sealed”, is home to the people who want to “own the end of the world”. Jeffrey Lockhart, son of billionaire Ross Lockhart, is at the facility that his father has invested huge sums of money in, to bear witness to the technologically-mediated creation of “life after death”.

Ross Lockhart has invested in cryonics – the technology that preserves people near the end of their life by putting them into a state of frozen suspension.

This is the premise and setting of Don DeLillo’s new novel Zero K. It’s a story filled with characters considering the transience of existence, as they attempt to steer clear of the precipice of death with cryonics. 

As Lockhart senior tells his son: “The time will come when there are ways to counteract the circumstances that led to the end. Mind and body are restored, returned to life”.

Faith in the advancement of technology and medicine is the incentive for those at The Convergence; they hope that those who are cryonically frozen at temperatures beyond sub-zero can be reawakened at a time that will grant them with all the tools required to take them beyond their biological limitations, rejuvenating life in the process.

The achievement of immortality and the anxieties of non-being are challenges that have clawed at writers for years – everything from the poetry of TS Eliot to the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker have explored these memes. Author of The Immortalist Alan Harrington once professed that “death has become an imposition on the human race and is no longer acceptable”.

The seemingly inevitable end that death presents makes the provocations of these writers surprising; beyond the concept of afterlife entrenched in theology, there has been little to gain from the enticement of eternity by people outside the sphere of religion. Which is why, perhaps unsurprisingly, the escape of death via cryonics is an idea that has now been latched onto by some scientists. Will people really be able to live forever one day? 

Cryonics and the future

In 1967, James Bedford, a former professor of psychology at the University of California, was the world’s first person to be cryonically frozen in a capsule of liquid nitrogen. He had developed cancer, and his quality of life was swiftly deteriorating. The event was enabled by the work of academic Robert Ettinger, known as the “father of cryonics”, whose book The Prospect of Immortality shaped the formation of cryonic transhumanist technology.

Bedford is currently housed in the “life extension foundation” known as Alcor. Founded in 1972, Alcor is a non-profit organisation in Arizona, and along with Cryonics Institute, is one of two companies at the forefront of turning futurists’ dreams into reality. At the moment, hundreds of people are in a state of cryonic suspension; age is apparently not a factor, as a two year old girl was cryonically suspended in late 2015.

Alcor is the largest of these organisations, and is run by Dr Max More, the president and CEO. Judging by its website, the company is keen to point out that the whole process of cryonic suspension is about saving “the lives of living people”, as there is a common misconception that it is the dead who are preserved. Cryonics is a form of intervention in the process of death, taking place between the stoppage of the heart and the death of the brain, when the individual is placed in a cold coffin hovering between life and death.

The company is also keen to explain that their methods make use of vitrification – a process which is free from ice formation, and therefore does not involve freezing the body, per se. Much like the acolytes of The Convergence in DeLillo’s novel, the people who undergo cryonic preservation are placed in “vacuum-insulated dewars” , filled with liquid nitrogen at a temperature of -196 degrees Celsius. Options are available for individuals who would prefer to have just their brain frozen as opposed to the entirety of their body. Those who are currently suspended wait, not knowing whether it will be 50 years, 500 years or more until they are resuscitated.

According to Alcor, cryonics is supported by rigorous scientific methodology, and an open letter in support of the futuristic technology has gained signatories from world leading scientists at institutes such as MIT, Harvard University, Nasa and Cambridge University.  

Cryo-scepticism

The chance to extend the ephemera of existence certainly seems attractive, and many (including a host of celebrities) have signed up for the procedure. However, the practicalities and legitimacy of cryonics have come into question.

The issue of not being able to verify results, as admitted by Alcor, means that promises cannot be made based on real-world results of successful revivals, because as it stands, no one has yet been recovered. There are also complications surrounding the financial models permitting the practice of cryonics; life insurance makes the technology affordable and accessible to those who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford it, but closer looks at these policies show the cryonic companies to be the main recipients of insurance payouts. Meanwhile tools in the process of revival, which are partially based on a remapping of the connections of the brain into a replica connectome of the person prior to preservation, have been deemed flawed as it demonstrates a misunderstanding in the way the human mind operates.

Perhaps more importantly, as stressed by DeLillo, there is a haunting undertone to the idea that cryonics may be “designing a future culture of lethargy and self-indulgence”. Whether cryonics will offer salvation from death is something we may not know for centuries, but in the face of an awareness of mortality that individualises the human condition, we may, for now, have to make peace with death.

As Ross Lockhart declares, cryonics is “faith-based technology. That’s what it is. Another God”. Eternity from technology, eternity from God  it all seems to come down to faith. Make of that what you will.