It’s no secret that humanity is moving towards a more technologically advanced society, but at the same time, it is also moving towards a more secular one as religion declines. Published in 2016, Don DeLillo’s Zero K emulates this extremely well through the theme of technology becoming the new religion, the new “god,” in the future. As we become more and more dependent on it, we consequently look to it as the answers to all our problems, including, and most importantly for the sake of this novel, death.

In Zero K, the answer to death is cryogenics. The plot follows narrator Jeffrey in an off-the-books cryogenics facility (called The Convergence) run by his father, who plans on going into cryogenic sleep with his wife, Artis, who has been afflicted with multiple sclerosis, among other things. Simply put, the desire is to reemerge in the future when the world is better, and when cures have been discovered to treat the various illnesses of Artis.

Within a month of the release of Zero K as a hardcover book, the building of a cryogenic facility in Comfort, Texas (called Timeship) was announced, with its main goal — you guessed it — to cryopreserve up to 50,000 people (Thomson, “Ark of the Immortals”). This is quite the leap from 2002/03, when the first organ was successfully “vitrified (turned into a glass-like state), thawed, and re-transplanted back into a rabbit” (Ireland, “The History of Cheating Death”). This caused a great deal of talk around the subject, and whether or not it was just a  “vanity project” for those who could afford it.

That said, DeLillo’s novel has more questions than answers, viewing cryogenics as the unknown, particularly its outcome (which is ironic, considering death — that which cryogenics is meant to defeat — is also the unknown). Jeffrey speaks with Artis about what she thinks will happen after she wakes up (which is coined the “reawakening”), and, though she is just as unsure as he, she brings up metempsychosis as a joke (DeLillo, 48). Thus, even though Zero K focuses heavily on the usurpation of religion by technology, it still seems that the soul has a place in the text (along with the many biblical allusions made as well). However, this is also meant to illustrate the incompatibility of science of religion, a theme that runs through the novel and is extremely reflective of modern society as it becomes more secular.

One of the more subtle themes in Zero K is the inclusion of a world dominated by terrorism. In the novel, people literally take bets on terrorist attacks: “Visit the site, examine the conditions, enter a bet. Which country, which group, numbers of dead. Always the time frame” (DeLillo, 194). Though fear of terrorism was made especially apparent after 9/11 in 2001, it once again flared up in 2016, for over the course of this year, North Korea ran quite a few ballistic missile tests in an effort to perfect their long-range weaponry. That, coupled with the already suspected human-rights violations under the rule of Kim Jong Un (and, of course, the existing terrorism within the U.S. during this year), was quite the source of anxiety, and Zero K plays to that fear in the background of the main events of the story. After all, who wouldn’t want to “go to sleep,” and come back years in the future to a better world, one bereft of all the malignancies that plagued it prior? The fragility of life is ever-present (in both the novel and real life), so the prospect of conquering death is bound to be appealing.

Zero K explores cryogenics and immortality, and what this means for humanity down the line. Though, at the time of writing, it was (and still is, to an extent) speculative, we seem to be nearing a time where it may become a reality. 

With that in mind, the ethical questions strewn throughout the novel (i.e. are we still human if we no longer die?) will continue to be brought up today as we step closer to a realized immortality.

 

 

DeLillo, Don. Zero K. New York, New York: Scribner, 2016. Print.

Ireland, Thomas. “The History of Cheating Death: A Timeline of Cryonics.” Science Focus, 2020. https://www.sciencefocus.com/future-technology/the-history-of-cryonics-a-timeline/

Lipka, Michael. “5 Key Findings about Religiosity in the U.S. — and how it’s Changing.” Pew Research Center, 2015. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/11/03/5-key-findings-about-religiosity-in-the-u-s-and-how-its-changing/.

“North Korea: Events of 2016.” Human Rights Watch, 2017. https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2017/country-chapters/north-korea

“North Korea Missile Tests: A Timeline.” CBS News, 2017. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/north-korea-missile-tests-a-timeline/#:~:text=April%2015th%2C%202016%3A%20North%20Korea,the%20launch%20ended%20in%20failure.&text=July%209th%2C%202016%3A%20North%20Korea,altitude%20of%20some%2010%20kilometers

Senthilingam, Meera. “What is Cryogenic Preservation?” CNN Health, 2016. https://www.cnn.com/2016/11/18/health/how-cryopreservation-and-cryonics-works

Thomson, Helen. “Ark of the Immortals: The Future-proof Plan to Freeze out Death.” New Scientist, 2016. https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg23130800-200-the-big-freeze-welcome-to-the-cryogenic-revolution/