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Suspended Animation

Entry updated 7 August 2023. Tagged: Theme.

The notion of suspended animation is one of the oldest literary devices in sf, by virtue of its convenience as a means of Time Travel into the future (see also Sleeper Awakes). It is used in Utopian romances like L S Mercier's Memoirs of the Year Two Thousand Five Hundred (trans 1772), Mary Griffith's Three Hundred Years Hence (in Camperdown, coll 1836; 1950) and Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, 2000-1887 (1888). It became somewhat more than a literary convenience in H G Wells's When the Sleeper Wakes (1899; rev vt The Sleeper Awakes 1910). These stories, having other purposes in view, gloss over the scientific means by which suspended animation might be achieved. Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" (December 1845 American Whig Review) features mesmerically induced suspended animation (see Hypnosis), while Grant Allen's "Pausodyne" (December 1881 Belgravia Christmas Annual) as by J Arbuthnot Wilson imagines an eighteenth-century scientist inventing a gas which puts him into protracted anaesthesia. Stephen Leacock spoofs the concept in "The Man in Asbestos: An Allegory of the Future" (in Nonsense Novels, coll 1911), whose protagonist – after much preliminary numbing of the senses with comic papers – plunges himself into a centuries-long slumber by reading the editorial page of the London Times.

The most popular route to suspended animation, however, has always been preservation by freezing (see Cryonics). Many fantasies using the theme were inspired by the Ancient Egyptian habit of mummifying the dead; it was a relatively small imaginative step to suppose an arcane mummification process which preserved life and beauty, and Egyptian princesses ripe for revival are featured in Edgar Lee's Pharaoh's Daughter (1889), Clive Holland's An Egyptian Coquette (1898; rev vt The Spell of Isis) and Robert W Chambers's The Tracer of Lost Persons (1906); a very much more recent example is Anne Rice's The Mummy, or Ramses the Damned (1989). The modern world is visited by observers preserved from even more remote eras in Erle Cox's Out of the Silence (19 April-25 October 1919 The Argus; 1925; exp 1947), Olof W Anderson's The Treasure-Vault of Atlantis (1925) and Edgar Rice Burroughs's "The Resurrection of Jimber Jaw" (20 February 1937 Argosy Weekly). A curious novel which explores the existential significance of the ability to suspend animation in oneself is The Insurgents (1957) by Vercors; and Robert A Heinlein intricately constructs The Door into Summer (1957) around two trips to a single future by suspended animation (with one return journey via Time Travel).

Suspended animation was co-opted into Genre SF as one of the standard items in its vocabulary of ideas; it was used in the first extensive pulp exploration of future History, Laurence Manning's The Man Who Awoke (stories March-August 1933 Wonder Stories; fixup 1975). Genre-sf writers found it a useful device in another context: avoiding the intolerable timelags involved in journeys to the stars. An early trip of this kind is featured in A E van Vogt's "Far Centaurus" (January 1944 Astounding), whose luckless heroes arrive to find that Faster-than-Light travel has been invented as they slept. Later dramas involving ships populated largely by people in suspended animation include The Black Corridor (1969) by Michael Moorcock and Hilary Bailey and The Dream Millennium (1974) by James White. Back on Earth, a combination of suspended animation and deep shelters is used to outlive the effects of global disaster in Philip E High's Sold – For a Spaceship (1973).

Stranger beings than Cox's or Olof W Anderson's Atlanteans could be found in suspended animation, in a manner reminiscent of supernatural stories in which ancient Gods and their dormant Magic are revived into the present by folly or evil intent. The later work of H P Lovecraft is notable in this respect, while more orthodox sf variations on the theme include The Alien (1951) by Raymond F Jones, World of Ptavvs (1966) by Larry Niven and The Space Vampires (1976) by Colin Wilson. A celebrated movie instance is the Monster frozen in a block of ice in The Thing (1951); Doctor Who's regular Cyborg foes are found frozen and unwisely revived in the sequence "Tomb of the Cybermen" (1967). Further Monster Movies whose menace emerges from suspended animation include Giant from the Unknown (1958; vt Giant from Devil's Crag) and Dinosaurus! (1960)

The late-twentieth-century popularization of cryonics as a means of suspending animation offered a boost to the credibility of the jargon surrounding the literary device, and helped increase interest in alternative methods. These include the various works ultimately gathered into The Worthing Saga (1978-1989; fixup 1990) by Orson Scott Card and the fascinating Between the Strokes of Night (1985) by Charles Sheffield, which takes the notion to its logical extreme. Its deployment as a forward Time Travel device is nowadays less frequent, but the motif is still capable of further sophistication, as shown in Richard Ben Sapir's visitor-from-the-past story The Far Arena (1978), Richard Lupoff's Far-Future story Sun's End (1984), and Sean McMullen repeated Sleeper Awakes episodes beginning in Roman times in The Centurion's Empire (1998). Another application, generally satirical in nature, deals with Overpopulation issues by shuttling large portions of humanity in and out of suspended animation as in Philip José Farmer's Dayworld sequence opening with Dayworld (1985); a later treatment of this subtheme is Karl Schroeder's Lockstep (2014).

A favourite Imaginary-Science alternative to cryonic suspension is the time-stasis device which simply, conveniently and impossibly stops Time altogether within its range of effect. This is employed in Larry Niven's World of Ptavvs, as cited above; for further examples, see Stasis Field. [BS/DRL]

see also: Immortality; Generation Starships; Medicine; Suspended: A Cryogenic Nightmare.

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