Read in Chinese here.
In July 2088, shortly after I woke up from cryosleep, I received a copy of 2181 Overture. Assuming the book was science fiction, I didn’t even bother touching it. My only concern was how I could adjust to the new world I found myself thrown into.
After the cataclysmic eruption of the Yellowstone Supervolcano, only one billion people remained on this planet. My home was decimated when the catastrophe struck my city. It wasn’t until order was restored and food and shelter were provided that I learned about the state of the world: of the thirty-nine cryosleep cities, fifteen had been destroyed as a result of nuclear reactor failure; another twenty were torn down by rampaging mobs. Chang’an underground city, where I was located, was one of the four cryosleep cities that survived.
I was sleepless these days. I couldn’t stop thinking about the person who was beside me when we signed the “cryosleep agreement” together. We had promised each other that we would meet again in the future; how could I have known that we’d already parted ways forever?
Some people would say that we knew the risk when we chose to freeze our bodies and go into hibernation; true, cryosleep was a risky decision, but it wasn’t like those who were conscious had anticipated the volcanic eruption that produced the thick vog that permeated the atmosphere for decades either. This may sound like sophistry but let me get my point across—back in my day, though leaping across time via cryosleep was uncommon, the technology was nowhere near dangerous. The preface to 2181 Overture gives a detailed account of cryosleep: the technology began with a scientific breakthrough, where lab mice and monkeys were successfully frozen, sent into hibernation, and then revived. Merely five years after, Switzerland legalized cryosleep as a means for terminally ill patients to buy more time until more effective drugs were developed. Many people were cured upon revival under the help of up-to-date drugs. Cryosleep, an alternative to euthanasia, soon became fashionable amongst the rich and powerful. Investors, drawn to this opportunity, financed the first underground cryosleep city in Bern. When cryosleep technology was offered to the market in bulk, the lowered pricing led to a buying frenzy. Finally, cryosleep became a common mode of transportation—across time, rather than space. If we could travel from Beijing to Paris, why couldn’t we travel from the present to ten years later? The only difference between another land and another time was that the former was knowable, and the latter not. Thus, compared to immigration, cryosleep was an option more or less the same price, that brought about simultaneously more risks and more opportunities. It was up to the individual to decide the dimension they would cross.
It’s incredible that three mere decades were enough for the revolution that reshaped the human perception of life, death, and time. Just like every other revolution, the cryosleep revolution was a hotbed of controversies. Heated debates, opposing voices, terrorists that threatened to end the cryosleep project with violence . . . the war of values only became more heated when the reliability of cryosleep technology and relevant safety measures were no longer questioned by the public. Challengers took the discussion to the level of religion and philosophy. Of course, looking back, most of the debates were merely pundits babbling to their respective echo chamber. To be or not to be is a question impossible to elicit a uniform answer. Therefore, in my humble opinion, the greatest achievement of this book is that the author maintains an impartial stance. Industriously tracking the topic of cryosleep through a series of interviews conducted over an extended period; she pinpoints the most crucial figures who had altered the course of history and the most exceptional and thought-provoking case studies. Then, she delivers the information and her analysis to her readers with a voice that’s objective and calm.
The main body of the book is organized in the chronological order of interviews. The first chapter, “The Limits of Free Will,” was written in 2033—shortly after, “Eve,” the first terminally ill patient to have received cryosleep treatment, was revived. Inspired by “Eve,” numerous people started to advocate for opening up cryosleep technology to all, pushing the boundaries of law a step further. The question of whether one could choose to hibernate without necessarily being ill emerged in the spotlight. The first chapter documents various conversations between Li Zixuan, the first self-proclaimed “healthy individual” to request a pod at Bern underground city, and Zheng Yinuo, a member of the Cryosleep Law Legislative Research Committee. Many of the questions they pondered upon indeed remain relevant in our current time.
Prior to the publication of 2181 Overture, every article that featured Li Zixuan emphasized the death of Li’s grandmother from cancer. Her parents worked abroad, and she was raised as a “staying-behind child” by her grandparents. In 2024, her grandmother was diagnosed with nasopharyngeal cancer. Li, a middle school student at the time, upon hearing about the success of animal cryosleep experiments, came up with the idea of enrolling her grandmother in a human cryosleep experiment. At the time, cryosleep was not yet legalized in China, so Li wrote a long open letter and posted it to her Weibo account, calling for help from the public. Her letter did win her some sympathy but most of the netizens who engaged responded with scrutiny, scorn, and humiliation. Ultimately, her grandmother passed away. Nine years later, she sold her apartment in Shenzhen in exchange for enough money to go to Bern and pay for the cryosleep pod deposit. Most people considered her decision reckless; that she was performing an act of spite with her own life. However, instead of passing the same judgment, the author of 2181 Overture chose to highlight a scarcely mentioned part of Li’s story:
People want to locate some kind of origin story for my decision to go into cryosleep. They want me to be the emotionally unstable child who can’t get over her grandmother’s death. Of course, I won’t say that my grandmother’s death has nothing to do with my decision, but I think it’s more of an inspiration than a sole cause. It made me realize that a technology like this—a choice like this—existed.
That’s why I went to medical school to specialize in cryosleep. During my internship in Switzerland, I witnessed the revival of “Eve” and her subsequent recovery with my own eyes. If someone like her, whose life hung on a thread, could wake up safely, then certainly someone like me can pull through.
The first thing that the admin at Bern underground city wanted to confirm when I went to them to request a cryosleep pod was that I was a rational, calm human being, and that I was able to take full responsibility for my decision. See, what’s most ludicrous about the media and public opinion is that they refused to see that I was sane. They didn’t believe in science nor the judgment of my psychiatrist; they only wanted to believe in what they already thought and wanted to find a reason for my decision based on that.
Well, sure, they can believe in whatever they want. But just watch it. In thirty years—no, make it ten—none of this will be a problem anymore. My vision of the future simply surpasses theirs.
Born human, it is our freedom to choose where to live and which era to live in.
Li Zixuan’s words and actions were a great source of inspiration for Zheng Yinuo. At the time, Zheng has already been working hard toward the establishment of Cryosleep Law in China. Bear in mind that the first animal cryosleep experiments were actually carried out in China; however, due to legal reasons, China was cautious with approving human cryosleep. Various specialists, worried that they would lose their grasp on the future if they weren’t up to date with cryosleep technology, proposed that legislative work regarding cryosleep must take place immediately. Zheng has been serving as a researcher for the Cryosleep Law committee since she graduated from college.
Our work done in the past was focused on trying to define, from a legal standpoint, whether cryosleep was a kind of medical treatment or a form of euthanasia. After all, the hibernating individual does, to some extent, disappear from “the present.” Since the person in cryosleep is, in a sense, dead for the duration, it follows then that they lose their political rights for that time. However, the case of Li Zixuan makes us realize that a law adapted to the era we live in may not necessarily be about to what extent does one have to be ill in order to be approved for cryosleep, but rather who, signing “what terms,” can go into cryosleep. If we expand the boundary of Cryosleep Law to include all individuals, then the rights that the law covers are going to be way too broad. I’ll give you some examples: does the hibernating individual retain rights to property? Is their marriage status still valid? Does their duty of child support continue to apply? Can they inherit an estate? Under what circumstances could others—the country, organizations, other individuals—enforce their revival? There are so many issues!
With these questions in mind, Zheng reached out to Li, for Li was a case study that she desperately needed: she was an only child, well-off, married with a daughter, and her parents were still alive. Zheng was involved in the entire series of preparation that led up to Li’s departure from China and subsequently the era she was born in. Filing for divorce, relinquishing custody of her child, turning a portion of her property over to an insurance company so that she could pay for child support with the earnings, having her parents renounce her legal duty to support them . . . The preparation was exceedingly complex and tedious, but the matters that came up in the process served as crucial pillars to the Cryosleep Law.
Li is remembered by the famous line she uttered the second she signed the last piece of her legal documents, “I finally break the shackles of time. I am free.”
However, the author of 2181 Overture chooses to end her chapter with Li’s daughter, who was barely three years old at the time. She describes, from the perspective of Zheng:
In the courtroom, the young girl remains quiet. She keeps her gaze fixed on her mother. I can read in her eyes that she knows what is going to happen.
All of a sudden, I realize what those agreements that I had helped Li Zixuan sign meant: freedom comes with a price. Freedom for an adult means that their family is shouldering their burdens. That’s unfair. The only reason why her family had agreed to sign those papers for her is because they loved her; they couldn’t say no to her. She knew it, and she ruthlessly took advantage of it. To pursue the freedom to do as she wished, to fulfill her own life, she drained others.
This is emotional exploitation. We cannot encourage a future like this.
Zheng submitted her research material to the legislation committee, and then resigned from her job to become an “anti-cryosleep” lawyer who provided legal support for the families of those who followed in Li Zixuan’s footsteps. She died in a car accident two years later.
The implementation of the Cryosleep Law in 2035 attracted numerous practicing doctors and medical researchers who specialized in cryosleep to China. Among them was Cindy Xinyi Wen, an American researcher, one of the interviewees featured in chapter two. Wen chose to join the lab that first published the groundbreaking paper on animal cryosleep in Nature, precisely because she has dedicated decades of her attention to fundamental research on animal cryosleep, instead of hopping on the bandwagon of applicable human cryosleep technology. Wen said:
I’m here to explore the boundaries of life, not to figure out how to make more money from technology.
In 2041, Wen, as first author, published an influential paper—the paper proposes an important rule of cryosleep technology based on the analysis of data yielded from a myriad of experiments: cryosleep can’t put an end to aging. It can only delay the process. The maximum life span that animals could achieve via cryosleep is about twice their natural life span.
Chapter two of 2181 Overture is titled “√4.” In a conversation between Wen and the author, Wen was able to break away from the formalities of academic publishing and speak unreservedly about her conjectures:
Cryosleep technology offers us a grand vision: time no longer defines the boundaries of life, and we can reach futures that are infinitely far away. However, in the language of science, every vision is a hypothesis that needs proof. My research indicates that even with the aid of cryosleep, the total span of time that an organism can leap across remains limited. Think about how refrigerated food can still spoil and rot.
But where exactly does the limit to time fall?
To me, this is a fascinating proposition. At the beginning of cryosleep technology, someone had already proposed a similar conjecture from the perspective of space-time dimensions: in a one-dimensional world, when we travel along the sides of a unit square to reach an opposite corner, the distance is 2. Meanwhile, in a two-dimensional world that enables the concept of “plane,” we can move diagonally across the plane of the square, thus reducing the distance to √2. A three-dimensional world operates under a similar rule. With a unit cube, the distance from one vertex to the opposite one becomes √3.
Then, when we expand this model to include the dimension of time—the fourth dimension—what will the distance be? With a finite life span, how much further can we travel in that dimension via cryosleep?
We performed a series of animal cryosleep experiments to find out. So far, the results have been surprisingly close to what I call the “√4 Conjecture.” We discovered that though there was no correlation between the aging speed of an organism and the number of times it has been through cryosleep, once the total length of its life reached twice its typical life span, death was an inevitable outcome. We have tried to extend cryosleep to three or more times the animal subject’s usual life span, but we were astonished to discover that once it exceeded its destined end point, after being revived, it would invariably display signs of cancer and quickly die. As of now, we have no explanation for this phenomenon. After all, in the world of science, the case is often that the more we know, the more we realize that there is so much that we don’t know.
Of course, these conclusions are not enough for us to deduce a four-dimensional time-space model of life. It can very well be because the cryosleep technology we’re currently using is not advanced enough. Perhaps the next generation of cryosleep technology can upgrade “function refrigerate” to “function freeze.” That way, we can find true immortality in infinite futures.
Given the average life span of humans, it would take another century to prove the √4 Conjecture. Wen’s findings were extremely critical to the development of human cryosleep, as it provided the estimation of a limit. Legal provisions, protocols, insurance contracts . . . even the design of deep space exploration spacecrafts were impacted by the possibility that the extra time brought forth by cryosleep wasn’t inexhaustible.
The second interviewee in “√4” is Lu Qing, an astrosociologist whose expertise played a role in the development of the first deep space exploration spacecraft:
will be the first human deep space exploration spacecraft. Its mission is to send two thousand astronauts to the faraway three-body galaxy. As per our original plan, the entire crew will go into cryosleep aboard the spaceship for nine hundred years and revive just before reaching their destination. However, in light of recent research, it appears that not even cryosleep technology can extend the maximum life span of humans beyond one hundred and fifty years, which means we have to rethink our entire design.
In the new version, the spaceship is no longer a cryosleep city transported to space, but a city that can sustain the livelihood of people. Once we start to consider that humans need to live on the spaceship and reproduce, we started running into new problems. Most of the issues can be resolved through technology, such as provisions, oxygen, and energy; frozen fertilized eggs can ensure genetic diversity. However, how can we make sure that people aboard the spaceship won’t go to war with each other over nine hundred years?
We can’t find a single precedent in recorded human history. Therefore, it is impossible for us to conjure a convincing social model for the spaceship community. I have failed to deliver my project. At the closing meeting, one of the experts mentions that this is a dilemma that only science fiction writers can work out.
Interestingly enough, the project did end up taking the advice of a science fiction writer. Before the publication of the book, the author added to “√4” an interview with writer Gu Shi:
If we define “war” on a spaceship as large-scale armed conflicts between people, or a deliberate sabotage on the ecosystem carried out by an individual using weapons stored on the ship, then the easiest way to eliminate such wars is to allow only women on board.
The reproductive technology required is also relatively simple: freeze sperm and use genetic technology to screen the sex of fertilized eggs. Only when the spaceship is about to reach its destination should the crew start giving birth to boys.
Nǚwā departed in 2049, exactly forty years ago, and they are already into the third generation of “deep space babies.” Their latest update came on the news yesterday, “all is well.”
Of the five chapters included in 2181 Overture, the most famous one is undoubtedly chapter three, “2048: The Final Choice Before Dawn.”
2048 was the fourteenth effective year since Bern underground city’s inauguration. The city had run out of available cryosleep pods long ago; thirty percent of the first batch of people who went into cryosleep here had already woken up. Most of those who were terminally ill, revived when new drugs were available, were successfully cured. Those who did not pursue cryosleep for health reasons had their share of benefits, too: for one, they appeared much younger and energetic than people the same age; moreover, before they carried through with cryosleep, they had exchanged most of their assets for gold, which was stored away in safety deposit boxes in the Bahamas. As a lucky coincidence, they eluded the global financial crisis that occurred in the early 2040s. For investors, their confidence in cryosleep technology was greatly boosted by those success stories; thus, ten more underground cities were simultaneously undergoing construction around the world. 2048 was the year preceding the official inauguration of those underground cities. “Time emigration” ads flooded the billboards: Looking to go somewhere far away? Why not the future?
“The Final Choice Before Dawn” had materialized out of the worldwide fervor for time immigration. The chapter casts the spotlight on Tang Zhu, chief writer and founder of Major Focal Point, who first proposed the concept of “time stock.” Tang Zhu was born into a wealthy family. She immigrated to Canada with her husband and children later in adulthood. However, during the forties’ financial crisis, her family went bankrupt, and her parents soon passed away in grief. Following her parents’ death, Tang moved back to China to establish Major Focal Point, an independent media site that strived to “change the world with concepts,” but her undertaking was hardly a success until 2048, when she emerged to the center stage of TED and various prominent cryosleep forums with her “time stock”:
Are you satisfied with living on as a pawn of time, drawing every single breath at its mercy, or would you rather make time a pawn, to conquer destiny?
This is our final chance to make a choice before dawn. Once time crosses into the future, it will forever leave behind those who remain in the past.
Quoted above was Tang Zhu’s signature closing remark; she was evidently quite an outstanding public speaker, with a lively mind. She was very well-spoken compared to the other interviewees in the book.
In my childhood, there was a popular Internet catchphrase, “poems and distant lands,” which supposedly epitomized a kind of ideal life full of romance and adventures. It came to my mind at once when I first heard about cryosleep. Now, the implication of the word “distant” is no longer only spatial but also temporal. Such a fundamental change in cognition, which radically altered the human perception of the world, gave rise to a myriad of new concepts, such as “time migration.”
But “time migration” sounds like it’s designed for losers, doesn’t it? One can always choose to regret their choice and make a U-turn after immigrating to a different country. Time, however, is unidirectional; there is no return once you head down the linear path to the future. Doesn’t it sound like time immigrants are seeking for refuge in the future because they’re running away from the failures of their present reality? If we try to sell cryosleep with a concept like this one, not only will we end up with a limited customer base, but we also risk linking cryosleep to defeatism. A concept endowed with the vigor to last long must deliver an uplifting message. That’s why we are suggesting a novel way to think about cryosleep, “time stock.”
We all understand that the human life span can reach one hundred and fifty years; the waking period outside of cryosleep during which we can work is less than eighty years. Now that we’re on the same page, the next important thing is planning: how should we live our life? When should we hibernate and revive? Think about the economic cycle. The housing prices rise for thirty years; everyone knows that it’s going to plummet for the next fifteen years. What do we do? We sell, exchange assets for gold, hibernate in accordance with the economic cycle, revive once fifteen years have passed, and buy in when housing prices hit rock bottom! The same goes for stocks. When the general trends are massive surges, slow to fall—short-sell your stocks and hibernate, skip the trough. If your investment only starts giving returns in five years, then travel directly to five years later! Why wait? What’s the most valuable thing in life? It’s time!
Think about the first countries to do transoceanic trade. They ended up ruling the world for centuries. Now, it’s the chance to do time trade. It’s our era’s Age of Exploration.
However, as the originator of “time stock,” Tang Zhu did not, in fact, choose to go into cryosleep in 2049, nor did she join the underground cities that came after. Instead, she founded Time Stock, an insurance company that managed the properties of cryosleepers. She emerged as one of the wealthiest businesswomen of her generation. In a conversation, she admitted to the author:
Concepts are for other people. True value lies behind the concept. As long as I can get other people to believe in “time stock,” they’ll hand me their money.
This quote, which appears as the concluding lines of chapter three, drew the attention of the film industry sharks at Hengdian World Studios. Based on Tang Zhu’s story, they shot the movie The Concept Dealer and subsequently seized the Academy Award for Best Picture that year. After the film was released, it was simultaneously the trigger for a surge in criticism of Tang Zhu and a most conspicuous advertisement for Time Stock, which ended up dominating the property insurance market of cryosleepers in every way. On the film, Tang Zhu had this to say:
It doesn’t matter how a concept is born and what intention to profit underlies it. The key is this: the fact that people are willing to accept a concept by paying for it proves that we need the concept.
Tang Zhu passed away in 2084 at the age of 75 after the eruption of the Yellowstone Supervolcano.
Following the widespread application of cryosleep technology to everyday life, anticipations for the future began to increase in variety. Scholars have attributed the economic boom of the 2050s and 60s to the abundance of new lifestyles that cryosleep has given rise to. The Ever-Change, a phenomenal popular science book, gave a comprehensive account of novel inventions born during the time—from “time psychology” courses that supposedly aided one in managing their life to the “frozen-in-time beauty” care routines that salons and spas put out. The suspense blockbuster series, Hypertime Pursuit, which was set against the backdrop of cryosleep technology, broke box office records with every new release.
However, despite the flourishing cryosleep industry, the author chooses to dedicate chapter 4 to those who were neglected—the people who preserved their old self and refused to cheat time, and the people who fought tooth and nail and yet were still abandoned by the wheel of history that turned at a blinding pace. The voices of those people comprise chapter 4, titled “The Leftovers.”
I don’t understand what they’re doing.
Every media source and every link I could click on says that cryosleep is a choice for the superior; in contrast, those who choose to live in the present are “the leftovers.” Even so-called “time management” has become a skill that every “normal person” must acquire. I just don’t understand. My life is fine. I’m happy living in the present. Why would I hibernate? Why on earth would I want to go through the trouble of speeding things up?
Mi Mo, aged twenty-nine at the time, posted to NeuroWeb after her twin sister Mi Wei went into cryosleep. She received over a million reposts in the span of twenty-four hours, and a viral hashtag was born in tribute to her post, #theleftovers.
Many of “the leftovers” actively rejected cryosleep, such as the aforementioned Mi Mo, and Lin Ke, a famous (infamous?) dissident of cryosleep technology. She shared the story of her mother:
My mother woke up once, three years ago. Her “age” at the time was only five years older than mine. At first, she went into a frenzy of tech hype, splurging until she almost drained decades of interest from her insurance: her brain connected to NeuroCore, her eyes taken care of by VisRealm, and she finally made that trip to the Moon. Who could’ve predicted that in half a year’s time, she told me that she was disappointed—so very disappointed! The world she lived in now wasn’t any different from the world she used to live in, after all. It’s not the “future” she was looking forward to.
So what did she do? She ramped up her investment. She sold the house, took out a mortgage alongside a considerable amount of my money, and went into cryosleep again. She’s due to wake up in thirty years. Well, when she’s back again, she’s going to be about the same age as my children. I also signed a contract with her that basically said I won’t have anything to do with her.
This technology is a curse. People become insatiable because of it; they’re putting their hopes anywhere but the present reality. I’ve read enough history books to know that humans aren’t supposed to mess things up like this. I have the money, but I’m definitely not going into cryosleep. I won’t let my kids choose cryosleep, either.
Most of “the leftovers,” though, were not blessed with the privilege of choice. As Zheng Yinuo once feared, they were abandoned in the “present” by cryosleepers—cryosleep technology has exacerbated the atomization of people. In the mid-sixties, spousal relationships almost disappeared entirely; then came the separation of parents from their offspring. People began to believe that raising and educating children was fundamentally the duty of the state and society. The shift in values, nevertheless, was not due to happen within the span of a single generation. During the process of change, minors left behind by their caretakers as a special kind of “leftover” evoked a widespread debate. Abandonment took a greater toll on the minors who had had the experience of being raised within a traditional family structure. Qi Suran, for example, was put in jail at the age of nineteen for breaking and entering into a cryosleep city. The author of the book portrays her as a “quiet, placid young woman with refined features, whose demeanor resembles a literato of ancient times.” She confessed in an interview:
I was in middle school at the time. My parents asked whether I wanted to go to the future with them. I said yes. In court, the judge asked me the same question. I gave the exact same answer—I wanted to go to the future.
And then my parents left me behind, without saying goodbye.
Since that day, my future has become a dark abyss. My parents left me with nothing. And I had to survive.
Sometimes I think that I’d rather have them file for divorce and fight over who gets to renounce parental responsibility than them going off to a future together and leaving me in the present. I went to the underground city because I wanted to find them. I wanted to wake them up and ask them why. What have I done to deserve this?
Soon after Qi was released, she was imprisoned again for programming a NeuroCore virus. She spent most of her life in prison. She never found her parents.
If leaving children behind could still be considered news, then abandoning the elderly was so common that such cases barely caused a stir in public opinion. Shu Lan’s only daughter, at the age of thirty-five, sold the house that they lived in together for a cryosleep pod, a ticket to forty years into the future. Shu Lan, having lost everything, took the matter to court. She hoped that she could have the law’s support in enforcing her daughter’s revival:
I supported her until she obtained her Ph.D. I was worried that without premarital assets of her own, she would be taken advantage of when she got married, so I transferred the ownership of my house to her. I’ve worked all my life, and I barely finished paying off my mortgage when I retired. The pension I currently receive can’t even cover my rent. What can I do?
I assume that Shu Lan lost her lawsuit because the first documented case of enforced revival is Man Ge, a space architect. Unlike Shu Lan, Man Ge’s mother was an influential politician. Refusing to be left behind by her daughter, she woke Man Ge up from cryosleep. The mother-daughter duo, however, never reached mutual understanding. Three years later, Man Ge escaped to Argentina and went into cryosleep again.
In 2075, Man Ge was revived according to plan. She recounted to the author:
I don’t know if you’ve ever felt a “true calling,” a clear sense of purpose—you know that there’s something you need to do, and you’re the only person capable of doing it. I’m not choosing cryosleep for myself, but for the mission that I’m destined to complete.
In 2058, the studio I worked for developed an upgraded version of 3D printing technology that could turn a wasteland into a city. Our experiment performed on the Moon was a success, which meant that by making our 3D printer a “seed” and shooting it off to a solid planet, it could plant itself there and utilize rocks to “print” an entire city equipped with nuclear power plants and life support systems.
In 2060, we signed the contract with China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation to sell them our invention. That was when I found out it would take at least another fifteen years for my “seed” to sprout on Mars and Titan.
Fifteen years! How many “fifteen years” can a person work in their lifetime? Isn’t the whole purpose of cryosleep technology to allow those who can change the course of history to witness their dreams come true? Many people say that I’m wrong; it is they who are wrong. Sacrifice always comes hand-in-hand with progress. What is money for if we can’t exchange it into the most valuable commodity—time? Sure, it may sound cruel, but the lives of most people are worthless.
I will progress. I won’t look back at the leftovers.
In 2079, Man Ge boarded the interplanetary immigration spaceship “Fúxī” that was due for Titan, successfully evading the catastrophe that overtook Earth. She reached her destination in October 2087 and was appointed as Titan’s chief architect.
Two years after “Fúxī” departed, “Jīngwèi” and “Pángǔ” were launched in succession. Together, the three interstellar immigration spaceships carried a hundred thousand passengers that would become the first inhabitants of Titan. The “seeds” planted by Man Ge’s team were expected to complete the printing of Titan City’s main infrastructures in 2081, which meant that when the three spaceships reach Titan in 2087, one after the other, the space in which the people would set up home would have mostly taken shape. However, how those occupants would get around, live their lives, and build a brand-new version of human society was full of unknowns and possibilities.
In 2081, the Extraterrestrial Exploration Association (EEA) conducted a unique study: they uploaded the NeuroCore information of every passenger aboard the three spaceships onto a quantum cloud. NeuroCore not only documented health stats and career profiles of an individual, but also what they have seen, heard, said, and done since birth; it was a virtual replica of human consciousness. With the data, quantum cloud computation could simulate the behavioral patterns of new Titanians in varying natural environments, social systems, economic circumstances, and emotional atmospheres—that is, it was possible to calculate the future of a person, a city, or even a planet within a given model.
Designing the model was the core of the problem. Thus, the EEA shared the new Titanians’ information stored in the quantum cloud with ten institutions around the world and invited them to design plausible models that envisioned what Titan and Titan City would become in the next century, based on local spatial and environmental features. Each of the ten institutions selected a different theme, ranging from Titan’s role in solar system development and galactic deep space exploration to how the view of Saturn during the night as well as artificial scenery might affect an individual’s mental health. One of the research topics, “Life Cycle Planning for Titanians,” was centered on cryosleep institutional design. The author of 2181 Overture was invited to join the research group. Her personal experience materialized into the final chapter of the book, “2181 Overture”:
The night I receive the invitation, I am in a hospital in Houston. Someone is holding an open-air concert in Hermann Park, playing Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. The words before my eyes and the music reverberating in my ears entwine into a new symphony that comes from the far reaches of space and time. A firm chord progression, then the resounding cello and the thunderous snare drum. A city growing by leaps and bounds against the backdrop of the vast, unchartered terra firma of Titan. The violin chimes in with a vibrato, painting magnificent rings of Saturn on a cold, gray canopy. The concert band joins, enriching the composition with flute, oboe, and French horn—Hark! It’s humanity, passing down courage and hope from generation to generation. The cannons roar; their lives ignite in a sea of stars, lighting up the other shore, where our future lies!
Having written the opening with a fervor rarely seen in the rest of the book, the author quickly reverts to her usual calm and composed voice. She documents the research that she had conducted together with He Jing, a time management specialist, and her student assistants:
Institutionalizing cryosleep was initially proposed during the planning stage of the deep space exploration spaceship “Nǚwā.” Ultimately, the team forwent this option due to the √4 Conjecture, as cryosleep supposedly has a life span limit. Similar to a deep space vehicle, an extraterrestrial planet also brings about extreme conditions in which humans will have to live. We believe that appropriate government intervention that can plan and guide the cryosleep process of every new Titanian will exert a positive effect on the development of Titan. Of course, so far, no regime on Earth, the Moon, or Mars has enforced obligatory cryosleep; at most, “cryosleep bans” have been imposed on certain individuals, in the same vein as international travel bans. Therefore, the study that He Jing’s team is conducting offers an important innovative perspective.
The primary goal of institutionalizing cryosleep is to ensure the efficiency of production. Take nuclear fusion power plants as an example; during the construction and test-run of a tokamak, obviously the engineers would need to stay awake. Once the power plant is up and running stably, only a few people are needed to do routine maintenance, and the rest of the crew can go into cryosleep. When resources are tight, people hibernate to save food, oxygen, and drinking water; when it’s time to boost development, people revive to serve the society more efficiently with their respective professional skills, so that the new inhabited planet can develop as fast as possible and gain a competitive advantage.
However, when the new Titanians’ data was input into the institutionalized cryosleep model—built upon the foundation of logic and reasoning—something strange happened: no matter how the researchers adjusted the parameters and mechanism, they were unable to persuade the simulated Titanians in the quantum cloud to participate in cryosleep “according to plan.” Those virtual organisms risked their lives to resist institutionalized cryosleep; no one was willing to “go gentle into that good night.” According to the author:
If there aren’t enough resources to begin with, then people will be even more reluctant to believe that society will proceed with waking up the cryosleepers, since a newly revived individual means another mouth to feed—“cryosleep equals death” is a tenet that people live by in a simulated future.
Even if we set the model parameters to “resource-rich,” so that the new Titanians can live comfortably, most people refuse to fulfill their “cryosleep obligation.”
In the simulated world, the virtual Man Ge was also a leading rebel. However, this time, she took the opposite stance to cryosleep. She said:
I am an architect, but in a time when new buildings aren’t needed, I can also be a farmer, a teacher, a chef, or a childcarer. I am willing to learn new skills and take on work beyond my primary profession.
The whole premise of institutionalized cryosleep is wrong. Cryosleep is a right, not an obligation. It is contingent on personal choice. I will never subject to “obligatory cryosleep”—how am I supposed to know whether the rationale behind the choice of hibernators is to develop Titan City or to eradicate political dissidents? When the sick, the elderly, and the disabled can no longer provide their service, will they be forced to go into cryosleep, for the sake of the city’s “efficiency”?
However, even if the researchers complied with Man Ge’s words and removed institutionalized cryosleep from the model, there were still a minimal number of virtual new Titanians who would actively choose to hibernate. He Jing was utterly surprised by the discrepancy between their behavior and the cryosleep hype on Earth:
Sixty percent of the Titan immigrants have had experience with cryosleep in the past. However, once they land on Titan, less than three percent chooses to hibernate, mostly due to illness.
What’s interesting was that the virtual citizens in simulated Titan City also began to investigate the same dilemma. Feng Keke was a psychologist “born” on spaceship Jīngwèi. When simulated Titan City progressed to the year of 2119, she suggested:
The Titanians live in a pure artificial environment. The world beyond the city has no oxygen, no liquid water, no plants nor animals. Though theoretically and rationally the city is safe, in people’s subconscious, they continue to register the ecology here as vulnerable and unsustainable. The fact that they’re away from Earth exacerbates their internalized anxiety—they can’t possibly receive any support from the homeland. Spatial distance, coupled with temporal distance, is enough to induce a devastating sense of loneliness. When someone revives from cryosleep, they are likely to find themselves out of touch with the world. They don’t know what they can do or where they live; some may lose their idea of identity altogether. A fear so profound is something that cryosleepers on Earth don’t have to deal with.
Having been cut off from Earth, we are in dire need of close connections with one another, so that we can build a “homeland in time” together.
“Homeland in time” was the final result of He Jing’s research. She submitted the team’s findings alongside the data for simulated Titan city under alternative institutional models up until 2181. Interestingly, of the hundreds of possible futures collected by the EEA, most models failed to sustain their civilization until 2181: either Titan City was shredded to pieces by war or the new immigrants chose to flee Titan after all—and that was already discounting natural factors from the equation. The handful of scenarios that brought about prosperity offer a far less rosy outlook than what Man Ge had anticipated; hierarchy and walls that separated social classes permeated the new world.
The author remained hopeful in the face of futures like those mentioned. In the end of the chapter, she writes:
Destruction, death, violence, banishment, poverty, pain . . . these things that we are reluctant to see are in fact, the truth about the future. When explorers sought unchartered territory, when the thinkers mined for science within the treasures of knowledge, when hibernating scholars fished for the future in the river of time, they chose to persist in the face of similar dangers and despairs. Now, it’s up to us to uncover a new, faraway land amongst a sea of stars. What matters most is not where we land, but our courage to set sail.
The moment when the 2181 Overture rings, humanity has already won.
An introduction usually introduces the author of the book and describes how the author is connected to the writer of the introduction in the very beginning. The reason I’m leaving this part until the end is because I don’t want the author’s life story and the relationship between us to overshadow her brilliant, illuminating work.
Fang Miao, the author of 2181 Overture, is my daughter. She was born in January 2009. In the language of her generation, she’s a stubborn Capricorn. When Xiao Miao was fourteen, I published a research article, “Cryosleep Induced by Freezing can Extend the Life Span of Mice by Activating the Cryosleep Signaling Pathway.” Media simplified this groundbreaking discovery in biology to a simple word, “cryosleep,” and all of us adopted this new term that was shorter and more commonplace in no time. Some reports, neglecting the other major contributors to the article, coined me as “the mother of cryosleep.” Though I didn’t dare bolster my ego with the name, I never could’ve expected that such an exaggerated praise would eventually bring me a surprise opportunity.
Though everyone who worked in cryosleep knew that the ultimate application of our research is human cryosleep, we were prohibited from performing experiments on human subjects. Lab rats, pigs, monkeys . . . in the span of a year, researchers from all over the world worked expeditiously to replicate our experiment and refine the methodology. In 2024, I received an offer from a hospital in Bern, Switzerland, inviting me to join their team in exploring medical applications of cryosleep technology. They mentioned, in addition, that Switzerland is currently in the process of revising its laws regarding euthanasia, so that terminally ill patients could participate in cryosleep experiments of their own will.
I must admit, in the moment, I felt the kind of “true calling” that Man Ge had described. I found myself starting to believe that my life’s mission was to make the critical breakthrough in cryosleep technology, to bring light to humans fighting for everlastingness. I responded, unhesitating, “it is my great honor and pleasure to join your team,” before I realized that my daughter Fang Miao was about to take her high school entry exams that year.
I knew she needed me, but I also needed to go to Bern. In a heart-to-heart conversation with Xiao Miao, I explained to her, for the first time, what I was researching and the significance of the results.
She responded, calmly, “your work is important, Mom. Go for it. Don’t worry about me.”
After winning the support from my husband and parents, I packed my luggage, ready to embark on the journey. Xiao Miao and her father came to send me off at the airport. She waved at me, attempting to squeeze out a smile, but her lips were pulled into a tense line. She remained silent throughout. Barely able to look at her, I hugged her hurriedly and fled.
I have reasons to believe that when she wrote about the look in the eyes of Li Zixuan’s daughter and the words of Zheng Yinuo, she was remembering the moment of my departure—the only reason she had agreed for me to leave was because she loved me and couldn’t say no to me.
In the following years, the time I spent at home was less than a month per year. Of course, during school breaks Xiao Miao would visit me in Bern. In 2028, she started college in Hangzhou. She sent me a message, months into her first semester, saying that she had been coughing since the summer. Thinking that she was merely unadapted to her new environment, I told her to go see an internist.
When I saw her in Switzerland during winter break, she could hardly finish a sentence without clamping her hand over her mouth to cough. I arranged a medical checkup for her.
I hadn’t realized the gravity of the issue when I received a call from the doctor at the lab. The doctor said that Xiao Miao needed a CT scan, and I should be there to accompany her.
“It’s only a cough,” I asked. “Why does she need a CT scan?”
The doctor responded, “You must come.”
The results indicated that Xiao Miao has advanced stage lung cancer. She was only twenty years old.
We tried everything we could. Immunotherapy had won us some time, but it soon lost its effectiveness. Friends back home suggested that we seek treatment in Houston, yet I was well aware that the medical care she has been receiving in Switzerland was already world class. Every afternoon, at 4 p.m., the doctor would arrive at the ward to announce that there were no cures for her condition, word by word proclaiming her death.
I could sense Xiao Miao’s resignedness, though she never said a word about it. She had high hopes for her future; who could’ve predicted that such a tragedy would befall her? In the short decades of her life, she only had the chance to bury herself in books, but she was never given the opportunity to express, pursue, and accomplish. How could she not regret the millions of futures unlived?
She once joked to me, “mom, when someone writes your biography, I’ll be the footnote to your great life.”
But then she added, “it’s strange, isn’t it? When people try to define a woman, they automatically judge her by the men in her life and children.”
I smiled. My intuitive, considerate, and infinitely sweet daughter. She was worried for me, even in the final days of her life. She said, “look at how successful women scientists are described. All that people care about is her romantic gossip, her less-than-perfect family, and her lack of care for her children. Everyone wanted to find a reason based on that: how could she be so accomplished, if she hadn’t failed at least one of her womanly duties?”
Then let it be. People could go ahead and find whatever reason they like. Regardless of whether I would have a biography, I knew that the best of me was never cryosleep technology or my papers; it was my daughter, her bright, noble soul, and her love for me.
On the first day Xiao Miao was transferred to hospice care, Switzerland passed its new laws on euthanasia, granting terminally ill patients the opportunity to participate in cryosleep experiments at their own will.
“Would you like to meet me in the future?” I asked her.
She said yes.
That was how she became “Eve.”
In 2032, a new generation of cellular therapies was developed. My students and I revived Fang Miao. The new drugs kept her tumor under control, and her condition was improving daily. Li Zixuan, an intern on my team at the time, was very close to Xiao Miao. After we returned to China, Li often came over to see Xiao Miao. She told us that she was interested in going into cryosleep as well. At a later date, Zheng Yinuo paid us a visit to interview Xiao Miao in regard to the Cryosleep Law, though Xiao Miao was still recovering and had limited energy for answering questions. When Zheng was waiting for Xiao Miao in our living room, she ran into Li Zixuan. They hit it off immediately and became friends. Li didn’t want her daughter to overhear when she talked about divorcing her husband and escrowing her property, so she would meet up with Zheng at our house when the two discussed Li’s cryosleep plans. Xiao Miao was happy to witness those meetings, too, during her recuperation; it entertained her like an unfolding reality show. Often times, when I came home from work in the evening, Xiao Miao would chatter with me about the two women. The myriad of legal details involved in Li’s cryosleep procedure was beyond what I, the originator of human cryosleep technology, could even begin to imagine.
One day, Xiao Miao said to me, “I want to write down what I’ve heard and seen.”
For a long while, I was drenched in regret for not stopping her at the time. Writing is a mentally taxing activity. In 2033, a month after her completion of “The Limits of Free Will,” her cancer recurred, this time metastasizing to her brain. After three months of fear and stress, we decided that she had no choice but to go into cryosleep again.
The doctors told me that she was in complete remission. They couldn’t figure out why death had found her once again in such a short span of time. The dilemma reminded me of our first trials of the cryosleep experiment, when we discovered lab rats that were frozen for too long would soon die of cancer after waking up. At the time, we were unable to determine the exact turning point, so we jokingly addressed the phenomenon as “destiny.” Now, at the age of fifty, I decided to redirect my research focus to finding the cause of my daughter’s illness before she woke up. Soon, I encountered Cindy Xinyi Wen’s profile, a researcher who had been following my intended area closely.
In an email, I invited Wen to join my lab in China. She gladly agreed with the offer. The same year our coauthored paper1 was published, a gene therapy for Fang Miao’s brain cancer came out. My daughter, once again awoken from the cradle of death, began a new round of treatment. This time around, both Wen and I suspected that though Xiao Miao’s life span had not yet reached the limit of human life expectancy, she had nevertheless used up most of her destined time. Any kind of treatment would simply be an overture to more agony.
We mentioned none of this to Xiao Miao, though. I even encouraged her to write “√4,” hoping that she could gain as much fulfillment and happiness as possible during her remaining days. I watched her as she discussed the most cutting-edge ideas in research with Wen, struggling to converse with a mixture of Chinese and English. Language did not restrain the connection between them; the more they talked, the more enthusiastic they grew. Wen said to me that she had great fun talking to Xiao Miao, as many of the questions she raised were right on point.
Xiao Miao wasn’t too satisfied with the outcome of her interview with Wen. She thought that she had merely documented superficial explanations of scientific research and the interview lacked a backstory. Fortunately, I was working at the forefront of cryosleep, and I had access to all the latest tea—after Lu Qing failed her project in proposing a social model for Titan, I invited her home for a chat. She opened Xiao Miao’s eyes to a whole new world. One day, halfway through writing, Xiao Miao slammed her palm on the table, sprang up, and said to me, “mom, it’s not just the future that matters, but also the distant lands.”
She was, however, unable to reach anywhere farther than the hospital gates. After her cancer recurred the third time, we finally came to the realization that she was living a life-and-death battle between scientific progress and cancer cells. The only sliver of hope was cryosleep, her ultimate cheat to death.
I had only won my first prestigious research award when Xiao Miao woke up again in 2048. During that time, I had many visitors who claimed that they were here to see her—or, perhaps, to see me. Amidst the swarms of people, Xiao Miao noticed Tang Zhu, who was still hustling around. She said to me, “this person is going to make it.”
The look in her eyes and the language she used transcended the threshold of life. Her perspective was broader and more penetrating. She made the right bet; her article was a major driving force behind Tang Zhu’s eventual fame and fortune. Though, she didn’t get to see The Concept Dealer when it premiered. As for me, I don’t want to describe the pain she had been through with osteosarcoma. Gazing at her face as she slept calmly, I felt that cryosleep technology was perhaps a curse on me after all. If I hadn’t opened Pandora’s box, I wouldn’t have had to suffer the torture of finding hope and then losing it, again and again. By this time, I was too old to wait for her; I had to go into cryosleep as well. I entrusted all family affairs to Tang Zhu’s insurance company and asked them to revive us both when new progress was made in cancer treatment. We woke up twice, respectively in 2056 and 2068; yet every time, before Xiao Miao had to hibernate again, she only had the chance to document some fragments of what was happening around her. My body has grown old; I knew that I couldn’t take care of her any longer. Therefore, I chose to hibernate with her.
She said, “mom, you’re chasing after me with your life. It’s not fair to you.”
She was too afraid that she would leave me behind. She knew that “keeping her alive” had become the only meaning to my life, ever since she had fallen ill. I believe that’s why she chose to write about “the leftovers.” She was curious: what made people abandon their families for an unknowable future? And for those left behind, what did they experience?
After reading “The Leftovers,” I told her, “Life is suffering,” as the Buddha once said.
Yet she responded with a question, “Mom, when you were working on cryosleep, did you ever think that it would result in the world we live in today? No one can be content with suffering. Instead, they’re struggling to live on, to make choices, to metamorphose into creatures of brilliance in hibernation cocoons and create futures that you can never begin to imagine. This is what makes humans incredible.”
Bound in the nutshell of a tiny hospital ward, she saw infinite space and heard grand music that extended beyond my perception. At the time, I hadn’t yet realized—she was determined to leave her suffering behind and make a choice of her own. I wasn’t there to witness the 2181 Overture that she played. While I was still deep in cryosleep, she woke up alone, pulled through the treatment in Houston, contacted the EEA through her cousin Gu Shi, participated in their research, wrote her last chapter, published her book, and then disappeared.
I don’t know where she is or whether she’s still alive. I’ve been looking everywhere for her since my revival, though deep down in my heart, I know that I have parted ways with her forever.
The morning when the sun ripped through the thick, gray vog and showered Earth with its grace, I turned around and saw this book tucked next to my pillow.
I flipped to the title page. I saw her name.
She’s here. She’s in the book. In my palms. In my heart.
January 12th, 2089
1 - Wen, C. X. and Dong, L. (2041). Inhibition of cryosleep signaling pathway leads to accelerated metastasis of malignant glioma. Nature, 842, 353-365.
Originally published in Chinese in Möbius Continuum, 2020.
Translated and published by Clarkesworld in partnership with Storycom.