Suspended animation in fiction

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Suspended animation in fiction is the temporary halting of life processes of fictional characters followed by their later revival.

The process often serves as a plot device and is used in innumerable science fiction stories as a means to transport a character from the past into the future or to aid interstellar space travel. Often, in addition to accomplishing whatever the character's primary task is in the future, he or she must cope with the strangeness of a new world, which may contain only traces of his or her previous surroundings. In some instances, a character is depicted as having skills or abilities that have been lost to society during their period of suspension, allowing them to function as a heroic figure in their new time.


The mechanisms for the suspension and revival can vary widely. Early stories tend to use magical enchantment that induces a long sleep. Many modern stories attempt to portray it as scientific suspended animation or cryonics, while glossing over and ignoring most of the complexities. In the fictional versions, all the cells are usually viable and the revival process is simple or even spontaneous. Many stories feature accidental freezing and use technobabble to explain how the characters survived the process.


An 1852 depiction of Snow White laid in a glass coffin during her period of magically induced suspended animation.
A 1965 press photo of actors portraying the Robinson Family being placed in suspended animation for their space voyage, in Lost in Space.

Some form of suspended animation often occurs as an element in many king in the mountain stories, a genre in which folk heroes from past eras are believed to be sleeping or otherwise kept alive for extended periods until they are needed to return to deal with some great peril. For example, Holger Danske.

Sleeping Beauty and Snow White are classic fairy tales that use suspended animation as a central theme.

In Shakespeare, several tales (Romeo and Juliet, Cymbeline) employ plot devices of a drug which induces a suspended animation state which is indistinguishable from death.

In American fiction, the first story to deal with suspended animation is the tale of Rip Van Winkle, a short story by American author Washington Irving published in 1819 as well as the name of the story's fictional protagonist. In the story, a British subject in the American colonies wanders into the Catskill Mountains in the years before the American Revolutionary War, and finds a group of fairies, whose moonshine he drinks. He then falls asleep for 20 years, and returns to his village in what is now the United States, finding his home town and country utterly changed. The story has become a prototype for social dislocation tales of the type.

Notable later science fiction short stories of the 19th century featuring suspended animation, deliberate or accidental, include Edgar Allan Poe's short story "Some Words with a Mummy" (1845), and Lydia Maria Child's short story "Hilda Silfverling, A Fantasy" (1845),[1] Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward and Jack London's first published work "A Thousand Deaths" (1899).

In the 20th century science fiction featuring suspended animation include the notable V. Mayakovsky's Klop (1928),[2] H.P. Lovecraft's "Cool Air" (1928), and Edgar Rice Burroughs' "The Resurrection of Jimber-Jaw" (1937).

The character of Buck Rogers was introduced in the August 1928 issue of the pulp magazine Amazing Stories,.[3] In the novella, Armageddon 2419 A.D., he is described as a World War I veteran who became trapped in a mine and was preserved for 500 years by mine gasses, a mythology that continued in the 1930s radio show, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.[4]

Many of the subjects in these early stories are unwilling ones, although a 1931 short story by Neil R. Jones called "The Jameson Satellite",[5] in which the subject has himself deliberately preserved in space after death, has been credited with giving Robert Ettinger the seed of the idea of cryonics, when he was a teenager.[6] Ettinger would later write a science fiction story called The Penultimate Trump, published in 1948, in which the explicit idea of cryopreservation of legally dead persons for future repair of medical causes of death is promulgated.[7] Fictional application of suspended animation as rescue after freezing in space has continued since The Jameson Satellite in 1931. Arthur C. Clarke's 3001: The Final Odyssey reveals that Frank Poole, murdered by HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey was cryopreserved by his exposure to space, and found and revived a thousand years later.

In 1964, the comic book super-hero Captain America, popular in the 1940s and discontinued in the 1950s, returned to publication with the explanation that he had been accidentally frozen in Arctic ice.[8]

The Age of the Pussyfoot, a work of science fiction by Frederik Pohl, concerns a man who is revived from cryopreservation in the year 2527, having been killed in a fire 500 years earlier. This story was first published as a serial in Galaxy Science Fiction in three parts, starting in October 1966, and was later published as a novel in 1969.

Relatively few stories have been published concerning using cryonics for medical time travel. In the Edgar Allan Poe story mentioned above (1845), the electrically-revived mummy mentions that his Egyptian civilization uses mummification for time travel.

The most in-depth novel based on contemporary cryonics is national best-seller The First Immortal by James L. Halperin (1998). Giles Milton's 2014 thriller, The Perfect Corpse is set in a fictional cryonics laboratory in Nevada; the narrative revolves around the resurrection of a perfectly frozen body discovered in the Greenland ice sheet.


Movies featuring suspended animation include Late for Dinner (1991), Forever Young (1992), Demolition Man (1993), Idiocracy (2006), Sexmission (1984), and the Woody Allen comedy Sleeper (1973) and Open Your Eyes (Abre los Ojos 1997, remade as Vanilla Sky, 2001).

The 1984 film Iceman centered on a prehistoric man who was found and revived after being frozen for 40,000 years. Played dramatically in that film, the same concept was used for comedic effect in the 1992 film Encino Man. In both films, the prehistoric individual was depicted as having been flash-frozen naturally, with no special preparation to permit survival of the freezing experience, and thawing with no apparent lasting damage to their physical or mental abilities. In Iceman, the scientists examining the caveman before his thaw speculate that something in his diet acted as a natural antifreeze to prevent cell crystallization.

Suspended animation is used during space travel in the James Cameron films Aliens (1986) and Avatar (2009). Cryosleep was also used in Christopher Nolan's Interstellar (2014).It was also used in Morten Tyldum's Passengers (2016).The Empire Strikes Back (1980) involves the test freezing of Han Solo as proof of concept for suspension, which caused temporary blindness upon his successful revival. Austin Powers (1997) and its sequels (1999, 2002) use suspended animation as a plot device to insert a 1960s spy character and arch villain into a world decades later in which their behavior and expectations are often jarringly out of place.


On television, suspended animation has appeared occasionally since the 1960s. It was prominently featured in the opening episode of the space adventure series Lost in Space (1965), in which a family of space travelers was placed in suspension for a five and a half year interstellar journey to a planet of the star Alpha Centauri. In the original series of Star Trek episode "Space Seed" (1967), 72 humans are found adrift in space in a state of suspended animation. Their leader, Khan Noonien Singh, is played by Ricardo Montalbán who reprised the role in the film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). Many elements of the "Space Seed" plot, including the cryogenic preservation of Khan and his followers, were used in the updated Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) with Khan played by Benedict Cumberbatch. The 1970s revival of Buck Rogers as a television series changed the origin story of its main character from that of a soldier preserved in a mine for 500 years to that of an astronaut on a deep space mission who became frozen for that length of time due to the failure of his life support systems.[9]

Producer David E. Kelley wrote well-researched portrayals of cryonics for the TV show L.A. Law (1990),[10] Picket Fences (1994),[11] and Boston Legal (2005).[12] In each case, there is a dying plaintiff petitioning a court for the right to elective cryopreservation. Cryonics also features as a plot element in the Castle episode "Head Case", where the episode's murder victim is recovered by a cryonics company before the team can discover the body, with the subsequent investigation being complicated by the legal battle to claim and analyse the body without jeopardizing the client's potential for future reanimation. In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "The Neutral Zone" (1988), the 24th-century protagonists criticize cryonics despite its in-universe success, regarding it as "a fad" of primitive 20th-century people who were "afraid of death". In two separate comedy series, Red Dwarf (1988) and Futurama (1999), accidental long-term suspended animation is used as an initial plot device to permanently thrust a hapless contemporary protagonist into the far future. In the 2004 Australian Broadcasting Corporation's series Silversun, 550 people are cryonically suspended for 90 years as they travel to the new planet Silversun 45 light years away from Earth. The series is set in the year 2050. In 2010 a Spanish soap opera titled Aurora premiered in the television network Telemundo. The theme of this soap is suspended animation and everything centers around it. It tells the story of Aurora Ponce De Leon, a 20-year-old who is frozen by her father after her death from a rare and mysterious disease. She comes back to life 20 years later and finds out how everything changed after her death. She has to adjust to life 20 years later; to being chronologically 40 years old but looking like her 20-year-old self.

The 1999 South Park episode "Prehistoric Ice Man" mocked conventions about people being having difficulty adjusting to life in the future by depicting a man who was thawed after having been frozen for only 32 months, but who was unable to accept the changes in fashion and music in that period. The dilemma is resolved by the man being taken to live in Iowa, which is shown to be three years behind the rest of the country in such areas. In another episode, Cartman froze himself so he could unfreeze when the Nintendo Wii came out, but ended up far into the future.

In the series Doctor Who, Time Lords can enter a suspended state at will, though they have to learn how. This can allow brief survival without oxygen, and may be mistaken for death by those unfamiliar with the ability. In the serial Destiny of the Daleks, the Doctor's companion Romana entered such a state after being captured by the titular cyborgs. They had her 'corpse' dumped outside, and she got up and walked away once they left.

In the TV Sitcom Mr. Meaty episode Original Sin, Edward R. Carney, the founder of the Mr. Meaty food chain with his renown pork rib recipe, cryogenically froze himself in 1904 in order to carry on the Mr. Meaty world domination in future. 100 years later, Josh and Parker thaw him out (thinking that he might give them a raise if they did).

In The 100, during season 5, a group of prisoners awakes from cryopreservation after a little more than 100 years. They were on penal labor on a ship mining asteroids, but had to go under cryopreservation for this period given the Earth had temporarily become uninhabitable.

Manga & Anime[edit]

Faye Valentine, one of the main characters in Cowboy Bebop is actually around 77 years old, though only appears to be no more than 23 years old due to having been put into cryogenic freeze after a space shuttle accident, wherein she spent fifty-four years in cryogenic suspension and who upon awakening from her cryogenic suspension has to contend with her massive amount of debt that she had no means to pay, but she was also diagnosed with total amnesia, a stranger in a mysterious world that she was not a part of and did not understand, surrounded by people who claimed to be helping her but were only there to take advantage of her naiveté, to the point that even her surname "Valentine" was merely a name given to her by the doctor leaving the circumstances of her accident, her previous life, and even her real name all remain a mystery, and are only gradually revealed as the series progresses. Utterly betrayed by someone she thought she could trust after waking, Faye found herself burdened with even more money to pay, and the situation resulted in the hardening of her personality to an extreme degree. It is eventually hinted that she came from Singapore on Earth, and was the daughter of a very wealthy family, as the city's famous Merlion statue features prominently in scenes of her childhood, and that memories and an old video tape from her childhood showed her living in a large mansion and it is implied that the accident that lead to her cryogenic suspension was due to an accident with an orbital gate.

Video games[edit]

Suspended animation is found in numerous video games, including games such as Halo that use it as a means of preventing aging during lengthy interstellar travel.

  • In Fallout 4, the main protagonist, the Sole Survivor, is in suspended animation through cryosleep as an experiment conducted by Vault-Tec in Vault 111.
  • In Mass Effect: Andromeda, the main protagonist, Pathfinder Ryder, along with entire arks full of passengers, are kept in cryosleep, while on a 600-year long journey to colonise the Andromeda Galaxy.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Mesaerion: The Best Science Fiction Stories 1800-1849. United States: Bottletree Books LLC. 2013. p. 81. ISBN 978-1-933747-49-1.
  2. ^
  3. ^ Garyn G. Roberts, "Buck Rogers", in Ray B. Browne and Pat Browne (.ed) The Guide To United States Popular Culture. Bowling Green, OH : Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 2001. ISBN 0879728213 (p.120)
  4. ^ Vincent Terrace, Radio Program Openings and Closings, 1931-1972 (2003), p. 36: "Science fiction adventure about Buck Rogers, a 20th Century man held in suspended animation (by leaking gas in a mine) who awakens 500 years later".
  5. ^ Neil R. Jones (July 1931). "The Jameson Satellite". Amazing Stories. Retrieved 2010-03-14.
  6. ^ Regis, Ed (1991). Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition: Science Slightly Over The Edge. Westview Press. pp. 87–88. ISBN 0-201-56751-2.
  7. ^ "Full text of Ettinger's "Penultimate Trump" short story". Archived from the original on August 1, 2012. Retrieved June 8, 2007.
  8. ^ Lee, Stan (w), Kirby, Jack (p), Roussos, George (i). "Captain America Joins... The Avengers!" The Avengers 4 (March 1964), Marvel Comics
  9. ^ Tim Brooks, Earle Marsh, The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows (1995), p. 143.
  10. ^ "L.A. Law The Good Human Bar (1990)". IMDb. Retrieved 2006-03-17.
  11. ^ "Picket Fences Frosted Flakes (1994)". IMDb. Retrieved 2006-03-17.
  12. ^ "Boston Legal Let Sales Ring (2005)". IMDb. Retrieved 2006-03-17.