Sleep! How precious, how precarious! Many of us struggle with insomnia. Perhaps we have apnea. Perhaps we own a cat who believes motionless humans are food. Perhaps we are simply aware that up to forty thousand redback spiders can fit into the volume of the average pillow. But sleep can be overdone. Imagine waking to discover that decades or centuries have passed…
This is a convenient way for an author to arrange for a protagonist not unlike the reader to tour an alien setting. Unsurprisingly, a lot of authors have taken advantage of the plot possibilities of the long sleep.
Consider these five classic science fiction examples.
Looking Backward: 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy (1888)
Julian West falls asleep in Gilded Age America. He does not wake until the year 2000. By this time, the United States has been comprehensively transformed almost beyond imagination. On his own, poor Julian would have been completely at sea in this brave new world. Providentially, his host Dr. Leete is more than happy to provide Julian with a guided tour of the America of 2000 AD.
And what a world it is! In the socialist utopia America has become, all industry is nationalized, each member of the industrial army is assured fair pay and retirement at age forty-five, and with economic injustice no longer fueling criminal behavior, crime is best handled with applied eugenics. It’s such an enthusiastic depiction of utopia as Bellamy imagined it, it seems churlish to note the almost complete absence of character or plot. Or non-WASPs.
Second Ending by James White (1962)
Medical student Ross submits to cold sleep in the hope that a cure will be found for his terminal illness. In the world after the First Atomic War, life is precious enough to warrant extreme measures to preserve it. When Ross finally wakes, he is healthy. He discovers that centuries have passed. Worse, the fact that people called the First Atomic War the First Atomic War was foreshadowing. The Emergency that broke out after Ross began his long slumber might have been called the Last Atomic War, if anyone survived to name it. Ross is the only living being left on Earth.
All is not lost, however. Ross has at his disposal an army of increasingly intelligent robots. In addition, his clothes were saved for him. There are a few tiny grass seeds in the turned-up cuffs of his trousers. Earth may be uninhabitable now, but it could be made to be habitable again. All that is required is vast amounts of labour and equally vast amounts of time. The robots will provide the first. Cold sleep will provide the second, in much greater quantities than Ross could imagine.
The Age of the Pussyfoot by Frederik Pohl (1969)
In 1968, volunteer fireman Charles Forrester bounds into a fire sans airpack and a little bit drunk. He immediately succumbs to smoke inhalation. Thanks to the miracle of cryopreservation, Forrester is revived in the year 2527. Alas, his loved ones are long dead, but he can take comfort from the knowledge that not only is 2527 a golden age of technological wonders, Forrester is by the standards of 1968 a rich man, with no less than a quarter million dollars in his bank account.
Unfortunately for Forrester, tomorrow’s wonders are not provided gratis. In fact, by 1968 standards, they are expensive. Forrester could live off his quarter million indefinitely—if he was willing to live like a 1968-level peasant. If he wants to enjoy the full benefits of 2527, then Forrester will have to find some way to pay for that lifestyle with skills five centuries out of date.
And then there’s the matter of the Sirians, whose covetous ocular units have fallen on Earth….
Android at Arms by Andre Norton (1971)
Andas, Prince of Inyanga, wakes to discover that the lavish bed chamber in which he had fallen asleep has been replaced by a prison cell. Nor is he the only prisoner in the facility. The prison in which Andras wakes is fully stocked with kidnapped VIPs from a wide variety of worlds and time periods.
On the basis of surprisingly little evidence, the prisoners decide they must have been kidnapped so those dastardly Psychocrats could replace them with android doubles. It is just the sort of thing Psychocrats do! Great justice demands the prisoners break free, find their way home, expose the doubles and take back the power and positions that are theirs by birthright.
If only they had a better idea how long they’ve slumbered. Or if they were in fact the originals they believe themselves to be.
The Birthgrave by Tanith Lee (1975)
Centuries after the fall of her great and terrible people, an amnesiac wakes deep underground. A bodiless voice—Karrakaz—does its best to drive the amnesiac to suicide. Instead, she flees the cavern, to a surface now overrun by once humble humans and their barbarous cultures.
The humans have little in the way of history. What myths they share between them are interpreted in different ways. What they do agree on is that the amnesiac’s gifts—a prodigious healing factor, a visage that must be concealed lest it strike men speechless—mark her as Other, perhaps even a god. This makes the amnesiac precious. As the amnesiac will discover, there is a huge gap between valuable and powerful.
Of course, there are many more recent examples I could have mentioned but I seem to have run out of space. Perhaps there will be another essay! In any case, feel free to berate me for ignoring fantasy, while not mentioning classic works like The Sleeper Awakes, The Man Who Awoke, The Jameson Satellite, The Godwhale, and so many others in comments below.
Originally published March 2021.
In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF(where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a four-time finalist for the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award and is surprisingly flammable.