When a tweet appeared on my account from a man unknown to me, I knew he had to be the first blog guest for my newly-published debut novel, ‘The Husband Who Refused to Die’.
It was from fellow writer DJ MacLennan, and in a strange coincidence, not only does his situation mirror, to an extent, the fictional, ‘frozen’ husband in my book – but he also looks a little bit like how I imagined him.
The coincidence doesn’t end there. DJ’s also published a book on the same topic, though it’s a very different book to mine. ‘Frozen to Life: A Personal Mortality Experiment’ is a non-fiction work about cryonics and why he’s chosen to be cryo-preserved after death.
Living on the Isle of Skye, in the Highlands of Scotland, with his wife, Sarah, most of DJ’s work is non-fiction, science-related articles. His main areas of interest are neuroscience, artificial intelligence (AI) and transhumanism.
What led you to cryonics, and why?
I was always a thinker and a worrier, right from when I was a small child. I felt things deeply, and worried about death and losing the people I love. Even back then, however, I had a logical/pragmatic streak that led me to question the inevitability of supposed certainties. Science fiction inspired me, giving me a soaring sense of the way in which things could be marvellously different.
Getting into computers and other technology as a teenager was, I suppose, a way to begin to access that futuristic realm. I wanted to be part of the radical future, not a mere observer. That gave me a sense of myself.
As an atheist from an early age, I rejected ‘spiritual’ explanations for the big questions of life and death, finding them hopelessly shallow.
When I met Sarah, I felt love more keenly that ever. But our contentment didn’t extinguish my intellectual concerns and nagging doubts about supposedly ‘normal’ life. Over many years, the various tangled strands – love, hope, fear, scientific and philosophical curiosity, and rebellion against ingrained customs – came together somehow. Reading non-fiction books about physics, the brain and artificial intelligence became a core part of my life. When I first read about cryonics in the early 2000s, the concept made sense to me on every level.
Later, I found that my interests chimed with those of various ‘transhumanist’ and ‘technoprogressive’ groups.
When did you sign up, and who with?
I signed up in 2007, with Alcor (based in Scottsdale, Arizona).
Why did you decide to have just your head, rather than full body, cryo-preserved?
Cryonics is a speculative science. Cryonics technicians attempt to preserve now, using the most advanced ‘vitrification’ (ice-crystal-free freezing) techniques available, but they can only speculate about the futuristic medical technologies that will be required to revive a person from a cryopreserved state.
Achieving good vitrification is difficult. It involves washing out blood, introducing various chemicals (like medical-grade antifreezes), then cooling very carefully down to -196 °C. It’s easier to undertake these tricky procedures on a head than on a whole body. And the head’s the part that counts – it houses your brain, and you are your brain. Storing heads is far less resource-intensive. For example, it takes much less liquid nitrogen to store a head than a whole body.
Thinking longer-term, any future civilization with technology advanced enough to revive a person from a cryopreserved state isn’t going to have a problem synthesizing a new body (biological or cybernetic). It may even be able to ‘upload’ a retrieved consciousness on to some kind of computer substrate.
My novel is in the women’s fiction genre and focuses on the difficult repercussions for protagonist Carrie after her husband Dan, who dies unexpectedly, is cryo-preserved. How did your wife and family react to your decision? Do you think it will be easier/harder for your loved ones left behind?
I discuss some of the repercussions of my decision in my own book, but I suppose they’re only just beginning to unfold.
My wife is a wonderful, caring person, but also quite fatalistic in her way. She supports my decision, and is fascinated by it, although she has not (yet!) decided to sign up herself. Somehow, she manages to live very much in the moment – a quality I admire greatly. So she tends not to consider her own future in any great detail.
I come from a large family, so reactions have varied. Now that most of them have read my book, they at least understand my chain of reasoning. But it’s an ongoing discussion – sometimes light-hearted, sometimes deep, sometimes fraught.
If the loved ones left behind find it more difficult to deal with a cryopreservation than a straight death, it’s only because society hasn’t yet learned to accommodate their unique form of grief. Tolerance for, and understanding of, a more nuanced view of life and death would help them to face their loss.
Is it important to you that your loved ones are also cryo-preserved?
Yes. But that’s not my decision to make. Every mind is unique, and must find its own path.
Many people claim cryonics and religion are incompatible. Do you agree?
Broadly. I think recognising the value of cryonics requires an understanding of ‘self’ as ‘useful illusion’, not as any kind of immaterial ‘soul’. We are the mind-patterns that supervene on the complex biology of our brains. That’s beautiful. That’s so desperately, delicately poignant. Most religions simply can’t accommodate that kind of thinking. Some Buddhists (Theravada ones) get it, but then Buddhism is a moral philosophy, not a religion.
Are you a member of Cryonics UK?
Not at the moment.
Have you attended a cryo-preservation procedure?
No, never. I’ve only watched videos of them. But I’d be fascinated to actually attend one.
During my book research I was amazed at how derogatory and negative some people are about cryonics. Carrie, my protagonist, has to deal with some adverse reactions and is taunted by someone with a serious grudge. Is this something you have encountered?
Sadly, yes, but usually not to my face. Being Scottish, I tend to laugh it off, but sometimes the online comments in response to articles about my decision have been vicious. I understand, though. For some people, maybe most, it’s frightening to contemplate that there might be an alternative to ordinary death. In effect, cryonicists are overturning customs that people hold very dear. But we’re not directly attacking death traditions, that’s just a side effect of the debate. We’re really about trying to extend medicine into a new realm.
What’s the weirdest question you’ve been asked about cryonics, or your decision?
There have been a few: ‘Will you come back as just a head?’, ‘Why do you want to cut your head off?’, ‘Will you be conscious after you’re preserved?’
Mostly, people ask sensible, practical questions. I enjoy attempting to answer some of them at book Q&A sessions.
How confident are you that the preservation will be successful, in terms of your chances of being revived in the future?
Not very. A lot could go wrong. But even a slim chance of it working is enough for me to embark on this experiment. What do I have to lose? In cryonics, we say, ‘Being cryopreserved is the second worst thing that can ever happen to you.’
On the optimistic side, though, there are many readily conceivable, physics-consistent futures in which resurrecting the mostly-dead becomes a trivial matter.
Current developments pointing in that direction include: detailed mapping of the brain’s connections (the connectome); improved forms of vitrification proven to keep brain cells and their ‘wiring’ completely intact; and progress in creating nanoscale ‘machines’, some advanced form of which may eventually be used to repair and revive cryopreserved brains.
Can you tell me a little bit about your recent book, ‘Frozen to Life: A Personal Mortality Experiment’.
Initially, I intended to write a popular-science book about cryonics. But I quickly found that I needed to put more of myself – as a cryonics ‘case study’ – into it, so that readers could follow the genesis of my decision. I also wanted them to understand that love of life drives me, not morbidness.
So there’s a good deal of relevant science in there, but also philosophy and personal narrative. Some of the personal stuff discusses my (ongoing) attempts to use mindfulness meditation to calm my thoughts.
I’ve had some remarkable feedback from readers, including some from a couple who signed up for cryopreservation as a result of reading it.
You can buy the book from Amazon or find out more about it at djmaclennan.com