The Science of Across the Universe: Getting There--while Avoiding Freezer Burn

A glimpse of the Godspeed's
blueprints from Beth's website.
Time to state the obvious (and get my geek on). Space is big, and it takes a really long time to get anywhere good.   Science fiction writers have been dealing with this distance thing for as long as they’ve been dreaming of colonization and galactic empires. Some writers use some sort of FTL (faster than light) drive. (Think warp drive on Star Trek). Some  (Star Wars, Stargate / SG-1, Bablyon-5) use hyperspace to get from point A to point B quickly.   Others embrace the fact that it does take a while to get where they’re going.  Beth takes this old school approach in ACROSS THE UNIVERSE.

The Godspeed is a generational sleeper ship.  The colonists are frozen for the 300-year (or so) voyage.  Meanwhile generations of crew are born, live, work, and die on the Godspeed without ever even seeing the stars.  The colonists aren’t supposed to wake up until they reach their destination. However, Amy is woken up early and experiences the society that has developed over the centuries on the ship.  (We could talk all day about the society on the Godspeed, but I don’t want to give anything away. )

So let’s talk about freezing people for the long sleep.  Cryonics is the science  of freezing living matter—with the aim of ultimately thawing it out. Alive and well.  But, you can’t just dip someone in a vat of liquid nitrogen and hope for the best. Cells get damaged. (That is, you get a hell of a case of freezer burn.) Instead, the process (at least to date) involves pumping the body with a cryoprotectant—human antifreeze—to protect the tissue from damage in the freezing process. Then the temperature of the liquid is lowered. (This is actually called vitrification rather than freezing.)

Beth paints a vivid picture of the experience.  A lot of fiction imagines the cryo process something akin flash freezing peas. Someone flips a switch, and then you wake up a thousand years later as fresh as the day went into the freezer. (Think Fry on Futurama. Or Woody Allen in Sleeper) In AtU, Beth does not gloss over how it must feel to be vitrified.

Hassan squeezed the bag of blue goo again. A line of blood trickled from under Mom’s teeth where she was biting her lip.

“This stuff, it’s what makes the freezing work.” Ed spoke in a conversational tone, like a baker talking about how yeast makes bread rise. “Without it, little ice crystals form in the cells and split open the cell walls. This stuff makes the cell walls stronger, see? Ice don’t break ’em.” He glanced down at Mom. “Hurts like a bitch going in, though.”

And this is just Amy watching her mom go through it.  The process is agonizing for Amy, and the her poor neurons are still firing during her long journey.   Check out the AtU trailer for a taste of how Beth so adeptly handles this part:

(And yes, that’s Lauren Ambrose from Six Feet Under narrating!)

Need a bigger taste? Check out the first chapter of Across the Universe.

So, kudos to Beth for tackling the “reality” of the vitrification process head-on. It’s one of the many things that makes ACROSS THE UNIVERSE great science fiction—and an epic story.

So, you may be wondering how far-fetched (or far in the future) is the whole sleeper ship—or cryonics thing in general? You’ve probably heard about people wanting to be frozen after they die. (The whole Walt Disney thing is a myth, BTW.  Baseball great Ted Williams, however, was indeed frozen—and evidently his body was not treated well.) There are a few places in the world (Alcor, Cryonics Institute) that will freeze you or your pet immediately following death. (In the US, you have to be legally dead before being frozen. Sorry, vitrified.) But no one is even close to being able to revive a corpsicle, let alone a still living “sleeper.”  If you’re interested in the freezing process these places use, check out this Channel 5 documentary.

Given what you know now, would you sign up to take a sleeper ship across the universe?  Or if you had an incurable (now) disease, would you want to be frozen with the hope of being revived--and hopefully cured a few centuries from now?


Theresa Milstein said...

I read her first chapter, which left me with the chills. I'd never be able to do it - I'd take my chance on earth.

I'm excited to get ahold of this book today. Finally!

Ellz said...

This part of the book really left me breathless. I couldn't do it, I really think I would have a heart attack. Congrats on the release!

Matthew MacNish said...

This whole thing is too exciting for words (the book release, not the cryo-stasis stuff)!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

I could barely breathe when I read Beth's first chapter. No way I'd go through with it. If I'd been Amy I'd have walked out to my nice aunt and uncle who were waiting. Of course, then there wouldn't be this fantastic story.
Thanks for a great post, Angie, and congratulations on the launch, Beth.

Angie Smibert said...

Thanks, Tricia. And, yes, the book release is too exciting for words!

Tere Kirkland said...

Great post! I just downloaded ATU to my nook this morning, and I can't wait until lunch to read it.

The subject of cryonics always creeped me out, but two of my all-time-fave sci-fi stories involve it:
Heinlen's The Door into Summer, which I read when I was a kid. One of the first classic sci-fi books I was exposed to.

And second is Matt Groening's Futurama, in which our hero Philip J. Fry gets frozen until the year 3000. Chilling! ;)

Congrats again to Beth!

Nikki (Wicked Awesome Books) said...

I loved how the freezing process was not easy or quick. The actual science behind it is very interesting and I remember hearing about Ted Williams being frozen - that's just weird. I wouldn't want my dead body frozen. Nor would I want to be frozen if I was sick. If I was in Amy's position though, I'd do it, as long as my brothers were doing it as well.

Anonymous said...

Read the book yesterday (review here at ). First chapter and the visceral experience of getting frozen were awesome.
The sleeper ship itself is very plausible. Loved the book, but I didn't totally buy the technological and social context that would push earth to engage in such a massive leap as it's first interstellar mission. Technology is incremental, and making a ship that could keep itself running without problems for such a long time would be very difficult. Of course there are problems in the book :-) but I didn't see the evidence of some of the advanced tech that would make this possible: large scale AI, the ship as a living thing with many little self maintaining systems and entities. Techwise I would have gone in that direction.
None of this, however, impaired my enjoyment of a very fun story, so it's just nit picks from a techie.

Stasia said...

Awesome trailer. Can't wait to read this book! Oh, and no freezing for me :)

Anonymous said...

Yes cryonics for me! I don't care that there is no method of reanimation invented. It's still better than decaying or burning.