The Door Into Nowhere

Cryonics, June 1988

by Mike Darwin

Shortly after Bob began his temperature descent, Saul Kent, who was serving as staff photographer, showed up and announced that the radio was reporting the death of another Bob — the legendary science fiction author Robert Heinlein. Heinlein apparently died in his sleep at his Santa Cruz condominium about the same time Alcor’s Bob did. Heinlein was 80 years old. It was an odd situation. On the table in the operating room was a man who was no great science fiction author or technical visionary. He did not inspire millions with his words and he did not write about interstellar travel or suspended animation. He was “only” a retired TV repair shop owner and devoted family man whose global “importance” and range of influence were trivial compared to Heinlein’s.

What an extraordinary and amazing situation. An average, anonymous, middle-class man undertakes a desperate voyage across time and space to await rescue by physicians perhaps yet unborn, while the “Dean of Science Fiction and America’s foremost visionary” is cremated and his ashes scattered from a Coast Guard vessel.

Reality is stranger by far than science fiction.

Despite their differences both men had a number of things in common. Both had heard of cryonics and both had received Cryonics magazine (Heinlein had several gift subscriptions over the years and received the magazine until his wife asked that his name be removed from the mailing list). Both men had also suffered a long decline in health and knew that death was both inevitable and near. Both also had the intellectual and financial resources to arrange for suspension.

By almost any objective assessment Heinlein was in the superior position to have understood and appreciated cryonics. He was a man of extraordinary vision and imagination and he had written about suspended animation, specifically discussing it in a medical rescue context in his classic 1957 novel “The Door Into Summer.” He even understood that extension of the human lifespan and the expansion of humanity into space was not only likely but inevitable. Why then didn’t Heinlein opt for cryonics and why did the other Bob?

The first part of that question is probably now impossible to answer, although those who knew Heinlein and attempted a dialogue with him about cryonics may be able to offer some thoughts (and are herewith invited to do so).

The second part of the question is a bit easier. Alcor’s Bob was a man who simply loved life. Whenever I spoke with Bob during his numerous health crises, he was always calm and very matter of fact. Life was good, he enjoyed being alive, and he wasn’t by any means through with it. Death, by contrast, had nothing to recommend it. Cryonics was the only option left. One thing I can say with certainty: Bob was not consumed with any overwhelming fear or anxiety about death. He simply wanted to avoid it and cryonics looked like a reasonable alternative. In short, Bob’s absolute, top drawer priority was staying alive. Staying alive even if it meant leaving this time, this place, his friends, and even his wife and children behind.

When discussing Bob’s suspension with some science fiction fans recently one of them remarked “what a tragedy that it wasn’t Robert Heinlein lying on that table instead of the other guy.” It’s certainly true that our Bob was no Robert Heinlein. The world will miss Heinlein’s clever story telling and his extraordinary vision. His death is a genuine tragedy. But it would have been far greater tragedy if the two had miraculously switched places at the last minute. Indeed, the truth of the matter is that the apparently “anonymous” and “average” Bob who chose to lie on that table was anything but average. Why? Because he had several things going for him that Bob Heinlein didn’t: courage to confront the future for better or worse, an enormous sense of self-worth, and a deep realization of the preciousness and value of being alive.

Extraordinary writing skills, technical vision – these will likely be things available to anyone almost for the asking in the future. They are worthwhile things, but they are not core values, not the fundamental things required to enjoy and hold on to life. The other Bob, the one waiting quietly in liquid nitrogen at Alcor, may not have been an intellectual luminary or a great entertainer of the masses as Heinlein was. But he had and still has something Heinlein hasn’t a chance in the world of now: the prospect of immortality in an open ended world of incredible possibilities. For he had the courage and the brains not to merely hear about “The Door Into Summer,” but to actually step through it.