Suspended Animation: The Last-Ditch Deep-Freeze

Hello all! I found this article on one of my daily romps around the internet and it reminded me of an element commonly seen in many science fiction stories- suspended animation. This typical plot device can take the form of chemical treatments that ‘freeze’ the person in a perpetual sleep, a device that actually freezes someone with the intent of thawing them years or eons later, or sometimes just some sort of inexplicable tube-thing that makes the inhabitant stop moving for a really long time.

Sometimes it’s done to keep a person alive until a future where their disease or ailment is treatable, and sometimes its used as a quick-and-dirty method of ‘time travel’ into the distant future. Regardless of its usage in fiction, this science is quickly becoming reality.

Mad Science or Miracle of Science?

walt dysney

Believe it or not, there's an urban legend that Walt Disney had his body frozen upon his death so he could be revived in the future- according to, this is false, but hey- fun story.

The idea of freezing one’s body to preserve it has been around for a while, the hope being that in some distant future the technology will have developed to the point of being able to treat any condition (including death). Some wealthy individuals have even done just that, or at least have been rumored to have (Such as Walt Disney, as some of you might have heard), which has popularized the idea as a purely scientific fantasy. However, reality has once again come around to imitate fiction, and there have been some real advances toward making suspended animation viable.

Dr. Peter Rhee is a  surgeon who’s done everything from treat American soldiers in Afghanistan to helping to save US Representative Gabrielle Gifford who was shot in a town hall meeting. After all his experience in the field, he has turned his research to finding a way to stretch those precious few minutes after a victim is mortally injured in order to allow doctors enough time to perform life-saving procedures. In most cases where a victim is bleeding heavily, it becomes impossible to perform delicate micro-surguries while fighting simply to keep the patient alive. Using Rhee’s proposed treatment, those few minutes could turn into hours or even days, giving doctors all the time they need.

dr. peter rhee

Dr. Peter Rhee

Rhee’s research discovered that while reducing the body temperature of an animal only a few degrees below its natural state (About 97 degrees F for humans) would send it into organ and nervous system failure (killing it by hyperthermia), reducing the body temperature to well below that (Almost 50 degrees F in humans!) causes the subject’s body to slow to a crawl. The heart rate drastically slows or even stops, the organs cease metabolizing, brain function  dims to a minute hum, and most importantly, blood stops flowing. All of these effects have been completely reversed in subjects, restoring the normal body temperature in pigs without any detectable damage.

The FDA has approved the testing on humans, and now it’s essentially just down to funding now. Rhee hopes to secure his suspended animation treatment as an effective ‘last resort’ procedure that could help save many lives.

Suspended Animation in Fiction:

So, it’s a cool idea that’s actually happening- does that affect how we write about it? Well, by Dr. Rhee’s research and others’, we know some things don’t work like science fiction thought it would:

  • No frozen cavemen:  I’m sure you’ve seen some story or another where a man or creature is found having been frozen in arctic ice for some thousands of years, only to make a full recovery. The thing is, when the cells in an animal’s body freeze, the water inside them expands into ice crystals, bursting the thin membrane that surrounds each one. No scientist or doctor, no matter how advanced, could repair that kind of microscopically massive damage. It would be the equivalent of taking several billion water balloons, popping them, and then reassembling the balloons with the water back inside.
  • No sleeping for thousands of years: At least with the sort of system that Dr. Rhee has devised (there are other ideas), it would not be possible to keep a person alive at such a low body temperature for an extended amount of time. If another technology was used to place the body in a suspended state without resorting to cold temperatures, long term applications might work as long as the body isn’t allowed to deteriorate beyond what the body could survive.
Obviously, you could use suspended animation in your story like Dr. Rhee plans to use in real life, and that would be a cool way to have characters recover from normally mortal wounds, and many other useful tricks- just be careful not to go overboard or else you’ll find yourself have to explain why anyone actually bothers to die in the world you’ve created. Make sure there are limitations and drawbacks or else there shouldn’t be any reason why people don’t just essentially live forever by going into hibernation while the doctors rebuild them.


Well, that’s all I’ve got for this week. Check back in next Wednesday for a big ‘ol Science Fiction Problems, this time on Cloaking and Stealth in science fiction.

About erikthereddest

I'm a Masters student in English, and I love technology and Science Fiction. I am refining and enhancing my (admittedly novice) writing talents under the sage advice of my friends here at Lantern Hollow Press, and with the great many books I am reading from the best authors I can find.

Posted on September 21, 2011, in Cliches, Erik Marsh, Inspiration, Language, Lantern Hollow Press Authors, Science Fantasy, Science Fiction, World Creation, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I’ve read several sci-fi stories where suspended animation is achieved by suspending time itself in a very limited zone (usually only enough for one body). Larry Niven uses these as a way to survive otherwise-fatal damage in spacecraft. Each seat, at least in the cockpit, is equipped with such a device set to trigger if certain conditions are met, such as high G, excessive heat, loss of atmosphere, etc. The devices use a lot of power, so they’re typically only on for a second or two, but if that second is the period of a laser blast or a head-on collision, something which would normally kill instead leaves the characters unharmed. Usually stuck, but unharmed.

    Another author, I can’t remember his name, used a similar idea in his sci-fi ground military for saving critically injured people in the field (just pause the body until you get it into surgery), or securing and transporting prisoners (you can’t escape if you don’t have time).

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