Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Cryonics Meets Teen Lit?

Young adult fiction isn't a genre I usually find myself exploring, let alone actively seeking out reading material from. However, a few months ago I became aware of a new novel entitled, I Was A Teenage Popsicle by newbie author Bev Katz Rosenbaum. As might be surmised from the title, the book is about an adolescent girl (sixteen-year-old Floe Ryan) who, along with her parents, undergoes cryonic suspension after succumbing to a fatal (fictional) respiratory disease.

I grew up reading science fiction, so I am no stranger to the subject of suspended animation -- however, it is odd and strangely compelling to see this subject pop up in something so far removed from sci-fi as the bubblegum world of novels written for an audience of eighth-grade girls. Could it be that the cryonics meme is, in fact, propagating through mainstream culture? Or is this simply an isolated incidence of an author happening to hear about a "weird" concept worth using as a plot device? Either way, I can admit without (much) shame that I'm finding I Was A Teenage Popsicle to be a fun (and fast) read -- I managed to get through about half of its 242 pages while installing new virus protection software on my computer earlier this evening.

And though the science is definitely thinner than what you might find in a "purer" sci-fi novel, Popsicle is surprisingly decently researched for a product of the YA genre. Early in the book, it is explained that:

"So they [my parents]...froze me." I can't seem to stop saying it.

"Well, yes and no," he [the doctor] says. "That's the term prople use -- even I use it on occasion -- but the process is really called vitrification. Freezing can preserve organs, but it also expands and destroys cells. Vitrification preserves the same way freezing does, without damaging cells. At least, the way we started doing it when you were brought in..."

I can't help but smile at a book that not only knows of the concept of vitrification, but takes pains throughout the novel to have the characters frequently correct one another such that the proper terminology is used (e.g., "Yeah, yeah, I wasn't frozen, I was vitrified, I know.").

The book also gets into some basic but interesting philosophical musings about the definition and nature of death:

"Well, let's just say you weren't really dead."

"Excuse me?" I say for the second time since waking up. Naturally, the doctor smiles again. "It's semantics, really. You see, Floe, people are considered legally dead when their heart and breathing stops. But when you're declared legally dead, it doesn't mean all your cells, tissues, and organs are dead."

This is a simple point, but an important one -- and one that I really hope at least manages to reach some of this book's actual target audience. Death is a process, not an event, and as stated on the Alcor site:

Calling someone "dead" is merely medicine's way of excusing itself from resuscitation problems it cannot fix today. This makes people feel better about abandoning the patient and making the unwarranted assumption that nobody could ever fix the problem. Cryonics, in contrast, is conservative care that acknowledges that the real line between life and death is unclear and not currently known. It is humility in the face of the unknown.

I Was A Teenage Popsicle may not win any prizes for depth of characterization or complex plot twists, but in a sense that is part of what makes it work. Popsicle succeeds, in part, because it doesn't try too hard to create a "tortured and conflicted" main character -- you have, instead, a spirited teenage girl whose hobbies include art and skating and whose wishes in life are simple and straightforward.

The book's overall tone is one that assumes that being alive is inherently good, and that freezing -- er, vitrifying -- people is a compassionate and proper thing to do in the event of fatal illness. The book's central conflict (that is, in addition to the genre-standard obligatory romantic sub-plot) consists of Floe's efforts to save her parents, since there's a chance that the cryonics center (where they are being held in suspension) might close down as a result of financial issues, complicated by the mewlings of a few patronizing deathists.

It is more than refreshing to read a book, albeit one aimed at teen girls, that not only presents life extension technology in a positive light, but that is completely devoid of annoying, moralizing messages about how death is somehow "natural" and that cryonics is some kind of abomination. I just love how the deathists in the book are the bad guys, and the good guys are the ones fighting to keep the cryonics center open and allow people to benefit from its services -- not to mention, speaking favorably of scientific progress. And I also like Floe's take on individual choice as it pertains to cryonics:

I'm thrown for a minute. Some people will have to wait hundreds of years for their cures. It's been hard for me just ten years after I was vitrified. Adventurous and spunky as I am, would I really want to come back a hundred years after being frozen? I'm not sure.

But I am sure other people would.

Popsicle doesn't specifically address aging or age-related death, but neither does it state that age-related death is somehow an exception to the idea that people ought to be permitted and enabled to seek life-extending treatments. And the lives of Floe's parents are not valued any less because they are older than their daughter -- cryonics patients in this book are (at least by the "good guys") treated as individuals with valuable lives, regardless of what generation they happened to belong to when they were vitrified.

Though there are some aspects of the writing that might make the average science-minded reader wince (pop culture references and celebrity name-dropping abounds), I see this book as something that has the potential to be, well, tremendously cool. If you're personally signed up for cryonics and are looking for a way to explain this to your young daughter or niece, this book might be just the thing to break the ice, so to speak. Or you can just get a copy for yourself as, er, cultural research.

All in all, I must offer a hearty applause to Ms. Katz Rosenbaum for offering an unlikely yet surprisingly effective treatment of quite a few prominent issues surrounding life, mortality, and emerging technologies in her first novel. Perhaps this is the sort of thing that author PJ Manney might classify as the kind of bilingualism necessary to make currently marginal concepts more accessible.

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