Suspended Disbelief

A 1965 press photo of actors portraying the Robinson Family being placed in suspended animation for their space voyage, in Lost in Space.

by Joshua James

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A space traveler awakens from cryosleep and …

OK, I’ll stop right there. Every sci-fi fan who knows their way around the Kessel Run should be raising a hand.

The idea of going into long-term hibernation during space travel is one of the bedrock concepts of modern sci-fi, one of those take-it-for-granted-of-course-it-will-be-invented concepts that sits alongside FTL travel and instantaneous communication.

I’ve certainly succumbed to the siren song of cryonics to move my characters around in time-defying ways, glossing over the details with a deft (or not-so-deft) display of technobabble.

I’m not alone. You’d be hard-pressed to find a list of well-regarded modern science fiction works, from novels to films, that doesn’t include storylines that depend on this popular trope.

There is, of course, no crime in using a popular shorthand to move a story along. But it’s worth taking a closer look at this narrative device, if for no other reason than to understand just what it is that we all accept with a nod and a curt “Get on with it already.”

In fiction

Like so many modern science fiction concepts, this one isn’t new. Before it was scientific, it was magical.

Think of the magic at the heart of “Sleeping Beauty and “Snow White.” Or the mysterious potions behind the indistinguishable-from-death suspended animation at the heart of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”

But for science fiction, magic won’t do. I often consider how Arthur C. Clarke’s oft-quoted third law, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” is applied in reverse with science fiction.

Any technology that we assume will one day come to pass is simply allowed to magically exist in our stories, with the unspoken assumption that it will pass from magical into practical with time and the application of science. (I am not, of course, referring to you hard science fiction writers and readers. As we will see, though, the hard science behind this concept isn’t terribly hard.)

In modern science fiction, it has been cryonics to the rescue. Instead of a magic potion, a deep freeze is used to cool the core of the body to the point where bodily activities slow to an imperceptible crawl. The big freeze is easy and often instantaneous, of course, as is the big thaw that comes after. Almost like magic, you might say.

The reality

The concept of suspended animation has fascinated man for as long as he could look to the animal kingdom around him and see bears, squirrels, and groundhogs checking out for months at a time.

Hibernation remains one of the great mysteries of the animal kingdom. For all our efforts to use medically-induced hypothermia to replicate short-term hibernation, the simple act that your average squirrel undertakes is beyond the understanding of science.

That’s right. Squirrels have us beat.

Consider the typical hibernation scenario. An animal finds a safe spot away from predators and slows its metabolism to less than a quarter of its natural state. This cools the animal’s body down and slows the heart rate to only a few beats per minute. It can keep this up for months at a time.

But how? The short answer: We don’t know.

No deep freeze is required. No magic, for that matter (other than the indistinguishable kind). Yet scientists haven’t found any unique genes in hibernating animals. There is no clue as to why some animals hibernate while others do not. Nor is there a clear understanding of what triggers the act or what allows for the regulation of bodily processes in such a state.

The sci-fi

None of this should put a damper on our enjoyment of the trope in modern science fiction, of course. There is no reason to believe that this is a nut that humanity can’t crack. Betting against human ingenuity and the march of scientific progress have proven to be a bad bet indeed.

But the next time you catch an author casually awakening his characters from a deep freeze somewhere in deep space, ready to tackle the adventure before them, stop and consider that the most fantastical part of this story might have already taken place.

Joshua James writes military sci-fi thrillers. They definitely feature cryosleep. Grab a free story at

Leave a Reply