The Big Sleep

Suspended animation saves the day in one of Clarke’s finest.  Published by Grafton Books 1986.  Cover illustration by Michael Whelan.

Suspended animation saves the day in one of Clarke’s finest. Published by Grafton Books 1986. Cover illustration by Michael Whelan.

Unless faster-than-light spacedrives ever become a reality, manned journeys to the stars are always going to take a very long time.  Generation starships might be the answer – many generations of humans living and dying before they reach journey’s end – but it may be easier and cheaper to put people into hibernation for the duration.  We look into the subject of suspended animation in the latest edition of Odyssey, which has just been issued.

The idea of astronauts sleeping for a lengthy period, and then awakening and continuing their normal life, has been around in science fiction for some time.  Readers of a certain vintage may recall Roberta Leigh’s children’s television marionette series Space Patrol from 1963 – similar in many respects to Gerry Anderson’s well-known programmes such as Fireball XL5 and Thunderbirds around the same period.  Space Patrol, though, tended to adopt a detailed description of several aspects of interplanetary travel – there were no rapid and unexplained journeys to other planets, let alone distant stars.  It recognised that trips through our Solar System would take weeks or months.

And so we were introduced to the idea of putting the crew into suspended animation in a “freezer” during the journey.  Degenerative processes in the body were stopped and they didn’t get any older.  Robots would control the spacecraft (the “galasphere”) in the meantime, and the crew would emerge remarkably refreshed to take on whatever adventure awaited them at their destination.  There was, though, a faster-than-light “zirgon” ray which headquarters on Earth could use to wake them up in an emergency – okay, no-one’s saying it was entirely technically accurate.

As we discuss in Odyssey, there have been plenty of occasions when suspended animation has been used in books and films to avoid irritating gaps in the action while astronauts are delivered to distant locations.  And sometimes it forms a key element of the story itself.  Michael Moorcock’s 1969 story The Black Corridor features a lone astronaut suffering psychological torment as he maintains a lonely vigil during the years while his colleagues remain safely asleep.  In the 1974 novel The Dream Millennium by James White, it is the dreams during hibernation of the captain and crew of a spacecraft fleeing Earth that cause increasing distress, and possible eventual mental breakdown.

Arthur C Clarke’s 1986 novel The Songs of Distant Earth, expanding his 1958 short story of the same name, describes a future where humanity knows of the coming destruction of the Earth when the Sun will go nova, and seeds planets orbiting other stars with the genetic material to allow the human race to continue.  Several centuries later, a seemingly idyllic society of humans has developed on the planet Thalassa, when the spacecraft Magellan – the last to leave Earth before its death, and carrying a million people in suspended animation – arrives for a stop-over to carry out repairs.

Some of the Magellan’s crew emerge from hibernation, and the locals are confronted by people who have actually walked on the home planet they will never see, “to whom Earth was still a literal truth, a memory of only yesterday.”  And those same travellers will soon be moving on to their eventual destination.  The interaction between the two communities, so different and yet so similar, allows Clarke to explore a wide range of consequences that only interstellar travel will present.

But the story also brings us back to the underlying problem of long-term space travel.  Long before the Earth’s demise, “no-one had ever been able to make a plausible case for manned space-flight even to the nearest star.  That such a journey might take a century was not the decisive factor; hibernation could solve that problem…The biological problem had been solved; it was the engineering one that appeared insuperable.”  In other words, one step at a time.

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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