The Unfrozen by Ernst Dreyfuss
Tower Books, 1970
Price I paid: Gift! I love gifts!
They lay together through the mist of countless centuries, while the Earth, the galaxy, the infinities of the universe shifted and resettled and changed again. When they awoke it was to an existence tranquil yet hideous, where human emotions had no place. Their love-making was viewed with suspicion and disgust. Now they were the outsiders, the throwbacks. Yet, with all their human imperfections, they were the only hope for a dying civilization.
This week’s read comes from the fellow science fiction blogger over at Potpourri of Science Fiction Literature, who contacted me on Twitter to gauge my interest in this…whatever it was. I was, of course, interested, and so here we are. I just want to extend my many thanks and encourage people to head over there and check out the reviews!
So…this book. Hoo boy. There’s a lot to talk about, and it’s hard to figure out where to start. There’s just so much I want to tell you about.
I’ll start with the author because that’s simplest. Simply put, I know next to nothing of Ernst Dreyfuss. According to the ISFDB, this is his only genre work. It might be his only work at all. Google reveals nothing other than Amazon listings for this very book. The most important question—Is he related to Richard Dreyfuss?—will remain unanswered.
The fact that this book was published at all says a lot about Tower Books, but it’s worth looking at the other stuff these folks put out. There’s a handy order guide in the back that shows us some westerns of the standard variety, some true crime-esque stuff about Dillinger, and a whole lot of erotica. At least one of these pieces of erotica appears to be gay, even. The best thing, though, is that Tower Books had the exclusive rights to a James Bond erotic parody called The Lady from L.U.S.T., where Eve Drum, agent Oh Oh Sex, gets into adventures. One of the titles is The Hot Mahatma and I can’t even…I just…
holy shit I just looked them up and they were written by comics legend Gardner Fox under a pseudonym
I think I found my next book review.
Anyway sorry about that but I just fell down a huge rabbit hole. Let’s get back to The Unfrozen.
Our first person narrator and protagonist is Neal McDavid. Here’s a fun thing to try: Next time you’re reading a first-person narrative, see how long it takes for the main character’s name to get dropped so that you know it. This book took three and a half pages. It’s also fun to see how it happens. In this case, we had a flashback to a party where he met his girlfriend and the co-tagonist of this book, Marya. It’s not a bad way to do it, but I’m a fan of the “Call me Ishmael” school where the protagonarrator has a voice and just tells us who he is and why we should give a crap.
We learn quickly who Neal and Marya are. They work at a hospital. Neal is an intern, Marya a nurse. They both perform heart surgeries. They are both interested in the future. They believe in life-extension therapies, particularly cryogenics. They look forward to a day when people can be immortal.
They’re also freakin’ stupid people. This is the main crux of the whole book. They make bad decisions constantly. They ignore basic sense, their own medical training, and what people tell them. The book couldn’t happen without this overriding stupidity on the part of the protagonists.
The whole thing kicks off because they keep having unprotected sex with one another before they were married. Marya doesn’t believe in birth control because she’s a Catholic, which is her prerogative, but dammit, if you don’t believe in using birth control and you don’t want to have a baby, don’t fuck. These people are medical professionals so they don’t even have the excuse of it being the late sixties or abstinence-only sex ed. This is as much Neal’s fault as hers. They share complicity in this bad decision.
Marya tells Neal that she’s pregnant, and he responds by asking if she’d consider an abortion, which is a stupid move because she’s already established that she’s against goddamn rubbers and the pill so what the hell dude? She tell him this obvious fact (this book is very fond of stating and repeating obvious facts) at which point he goes “Well, I guess we should get married, except I don’t think I’m ready for that” and she bursts into tears and runs away.
A few paragraphs later there’s an emergency (this whole conversation happened at work) and Neal has to spring to action. He’s training to be a heart transplant doctor, and he’s summoned, which means there’s some new body parts to harvest. This book makes organ donation sound like a free-for-all and we’re not even in the future yet.
Anyway, the body turns out to be Marya, who got into a car accident immediately after we last saw her. She’s got a head injury and is effectively brain dead, even though her body is still doing its thing. Neal realizes what’s happening, remembers some past conversations, and then freezes her with dry ice. He then decides that he can’t live without her, so he freezes himself, too. Everybody around the hospital appears to be okay with this.
We then cut to the future.
You might be noticing that I’m using bold a lot this review where normally I might have used ALL-CAPS. Well, hold on, because I’m about to tell you why.
The future is crazy and weird. Neal is confused by it, but they have the technology to unfreeze him and Marya and, furthermore they have the medical ability to fix Marya’s brain, so it looks like everything’s going to be okay!
Except, well, the future kind of sucks.
Everybody lives in space now. Babies are produced in factories. People are called SYNTHESIANS and they speak a language called STENO, which is basically English but phrases are shortened to something akin to caveman-speak. This fact was actually quite welcome, because the dialogue up to this point had been so stilted and inhuman that it was nice to see an excuse for it come along. People no longer eat, they do something called BALANCING, in which nutrients and carbohydrates are injected directly into the bloodstream.
Notice the all-caps? Those are all over the place in this book. Every mention of every futuristic word is in all-caps. Sometimes the words aren’t that futuristic, though. They’re sometimes words like SHUTTLE or HOSPITAL.
Both emotions and basic biological processes are considered disgusting. Neal gets called a “pig” when he has a wet dream, and Marya suffers the same treatment when she has morning sickness. There’s no privacy, as everything is made of clear plastic. The SYNTHESIANS intend to sterilize our protags and incorporate them into this horrifying culture.
Now, at this point I was getting a pretty good idea of what this book was about. One of the very few facts I could find about the author was that he was born in 1908, and this book was published in 1970, meaning Dreyfuss would have been in his sixties when he wrote it. I began to think that this was a book written by an old man whose views of what are “natural” have begun to be questioned by society. His beliefs on, say, the proper arrangement of the sexes, for example. I’m not going to say that Dreyfuss was necessarily sexist or racist. I don’t have that right. But it’s easy to imagine that, in 1970, this man’s views of the world, especially in those two areas, were beginning to look old-fashioned. Perhaps it earned him insults from the youth of the day. After all, both Neal and Marya are frequently called “pigs” for performing perfectly natural bodily functions, and that was a common insult toward the people in positions of authority during the time he was writing the book.
This book, then, is the result of a member of the Greatest Generation trying to cope with the massive social upheaval of the late sixties and putting it into a science fiction format. I ran with this theory for a while, and while I don’t think I was completely wrong about it, there were some interesting turns coming up.
A lot of this book is exposition. Neal and Marya meet the President at the WHITE HOUSE, where they learn a lot about what’s going on and why the human race has come to this point. In fact, the president is one of the people who made it happen. People are largely immortal now since parts can be replaced without any real problem. In fact, one of my favorite things about this book was that immortality was viewed as a punishment. Every person is required to live at least 200 years, and years are tacked on due to infractions of the rules. The punishment for the most heinous of crimes is eternal life.
The president explains what happened, and it’s a lot of stuff all at once, and a lot of it is either goofy or cringey. About 300 years after Neal and Marya got frozen, things started to really go downhill. There were four major world powers: The United States of America, the USSR, the United States of Africa, and China. America and Russia teamed up against China and took it out. They then joined forces into The United States of Caucasia, allied against Africa.
While all this was happening, the Earth got mined out. It’s not that resources got scarce. It’s that the Earth was literally being hollowed out. This caused people to want to flee to space, which just exacerbated the problem because it meant that more resources were needed to get them all up there.
Africa finally decided to end it all and set off a nuclear weapon. It was so powerful, and I guess it somehow interacted with the fact that the world was getting hollowed out, that it caused Earth to move in its orbit, after which it froze. This incident is known as EARTH-OUT.
Neal and Marya listen to this and pretty much just ignore it. Neal proposes an idea. He wants to be free of this society, and so he proposes to save it. See, SYNTHESIA has a problem. It has only about 300 years of resources left.
This might be the goofiest thing in this book.
SYNTHESIA produces nearly everything, from its food to its rocket fuel, from coal.
Now, it’d be unfair of me to state that they’re flying coal-powered spaceships and injecting coal into people’s veins, so I won’t do it, even though that’s what I imagined for the entire rest of the novel. No, they use coal to form those things in some magic science way or another. That doesn’t make much more sense. Anyway, they’re running out.
Neal proposes that he and Marya go back to Earth and get coal from there. There’s plenty of it. The president asserts that this is impossible. Neal insists that they be allowed to try. The president tells them that the Earth is a frozen ball of dust and death. Neal still asserts that they try. Finally, the president gives them the opportunity to go to Earth and see for themselves.
Everybody constantly tells Neal and Marya that going to Earth is a stupid idea, and yet they keep clinging to this ill-informed hope that everything will work out. Marya is the more frustrating in this respect, although Neal is by no means off the hook. Marya keeps saying that God will provide. That she’ll pray that they’ll be able to survive. That they’ll be able to find fruit and vegetables and animals and have lots of babies and repopulate the planet. (More on that in a minute.) Her insistence that God will intervene or provide or change things was so very naive that I felt sorry for her. She had a child’s view of God and His tendency to intervene in human affairs. Some people say that’s a good thing (Matthew 18:2-4, Mark 10:15, Luke 18:17) but in this case it was just depressing. Marya’s faith was the equivalent of a child saying that they’ll pray to God to send Grandpa back. You find yourself sympathetic, trying to find the right way to tell them that God just doesn’t work that way, knowing full well that saying that will lead them down the path of “Well, how does God work?” and perhaps to “I guess God doesn’t work at all? Then why does He have to exist?” and the only rebuttal is to say that He works in mysterious ways his wonders to perform and then hope to Him that it gets you off the hook for a while.
Neal’s reaction was just a insistent whine of “Yeah, but we want to try,” which, now that I think about it, is actually worse.
Finally, the president lets them go down to Earth. And yes, Earth sucks. They have to spend thirty days there, just so they get the idea. Also, for no adequate reason, they’re placed in Hitler’s bunker in Berlin? I kid you not! They sleep in Eva Braun’s bed. They rifle through Hitler’s notes in some drawers. Why did that have to happen? Why was the bunker still there? Why were the notes and the bed still there? It’s been 700-plus years!
A lot of this book just sort of happens because, well, why not? It doesn’t have to make sense.
So yeah, there’s no way to get at all that coal on the Earth. I guess everybody’s doomed. Neal and Marya decide that they’d rather die again than get sterilized and inducted into this joyless society, so they try to commit suicide by stepping outside into -100°C temperatures. It freezes them instantly, so they get unfrozen again.
This is where the book takes its weird left turn. Instead of rebelling against the SYNTHESIANS to save them, or anything like that, the couple decides that they rather like it now? It came out of nowhere. They still don’t want to get sterilized, but they have a lot of affection for this society, and SYNTHESIA seems to be okay with that. Why? Where did any of this come from? What is going on?
Neal and Marya still want to find a way to save everybody by getting them their badly-needed coal. They’re already dead set on having lots and lots of babies that can mine enough coal and have more babies that can also mine coal to keep society running until the end of time.
But what about…
I know what you’re thinking
I thought it too
The book mentioned it! And just handwaved it away! Twice, at least, Neal said something like “Well, there’s the incest thing, but nevermind.”
Even Marya, whose dedication to God is absolute, was just all “I guess it’s a sin, but whatever. God will provide.”
Incest is not a good way to start a society! You are medical professionals!
And this book had so many other wonderful and magical technologies that could have avoided the issue! But it was never even mentioned.
So the learnéd minds of SYNTHESIA try to come up with a plan for our couple, whom they now like for no reason. They propose sending them to Alpha Centauri. The response is that Alpha Centauri is too far. Also, the book totally misunderstands how time dilation works and says that while it might only take a few years for our heroes to get there at light speed, thousands of years would pass for SYNTHESIA, by which point it would be long out of coal.
So someone says “What about the SPACE-TIME-WARP?” because apparently that’s a thing. That’s dismissed as being too experimental, but it does let someone use the term OUTER-SPACE-NAUTICS, which sent me into such a spiral of laughter that the cat had to move.
Someone else says “What about teleportation?” But no, that won’t work either.
So somebody says “What about Mars?” It turns out that Mars is such a good idea that it should have been mentioned first, if not at the beginning of the goddamn book.
See, here’s the other goofiest thing in the book. When Earth got nuked and shifted from its orbit, it turned out that it and Mars were aligned in such a way that they swapped places.
This seems like such an important fact that maybe someone could have mentioned it earlier.
Mars is now, get this, a friggin paradise. The SYNTHESIANS can’t go there themselves, because their bodies are now so frail that even Martian gravity would be too much, but the humans can go there and live, no problem.
So that’s what happens. The SYNTHESIANS give them all the materials they’ll ever need. Also, they train them in mental communication, which is another thing that has been in this book all along and nobody really felt the need to mention. The mental communication is little more than the broadcasting of emotions, which is weird because I thought that the SYNTHESIANS were beyond that kind of thing, but there you have it. It’s the most useful possible thing, because our heroes can broadcast feelings like love and friendship and therefore the animals of Mars will happily work for them and make eggs and milk and all that lovely kind of thing. Also, Mars has animals and plants that people can eat. Convenient.
It’s perhaps notable that the training for that kind of emotion broadcasting boiled down to mindfulness meditation. It was all about recognizing what emotions were currently being felt and enhancing the good ones while suppressing the bad ones. I know that’s not exactly what mindfulness is all about, but it was close enough that I was intrigued.
So the heroes go to Mars, and then book takes it’s last turn. This time it’s a turn for the…really sweet?
The last thirty-forty pages of this book are just Neal and Marya on Mars, having babies, loving one another, building a life and a home, and getting to know the native Martians. There’s never a hint of menace, danger, or hardship. The Martians have a problem in that they’re going extinct, but Neal solves it when he finds out that the Martians can’t breed because it’s too hot for them now. He builds them a giant air-conditioned building so they can breed, and that’s the end of the book. I guess the point is that now he’s saved two intelligent species, but it’s not really harped upon in that way and there’s the fact that he really hasn’t yet, he’s just gotten started.
Also, the deal with incest was never addressed.
The book just ends with Marya talking about how lucky they are to be God’s instruments, and that’s it.
I think this book might have been Christian fiction?
I want to make it clear that this was not a good book. Boy howdy. It was baaaaad. I’m perplexed by it, though. At first I thought I’d cracked the nut with my “Greatest Generation can’t understand the Boomers” angle, but in the end, the society turned out to be good? So is that angle still valid? Is it the story of a Greatest Gen fellow who came to accept the social changes of the late sixties and view them as both valid and beneficial? But if that’s the case, why did the heroes then go to Mars and set up a super-traditional new society where Marya stayed home, cooked, prayed, and had babies?
What the hell did I just read?
There was at least one point where Neal thought about the 1960s and how people blew out their eardrums and brains with that damned rock’n’roll music.
But then he founds a society based on friendship and egalitarianism across species where, get this, everything is shared. He founds a commune on Mars where the most powerful weapon that anybody is allowed to wield is friendship.
I am perplexed. I’m not even a little bit angry. This was a new one on me, a book that was incontrovertibly bad, awful even, and yet I can’t help but keep thinking about what it was supposed to mean. In the end it probably wasn’t even supposed to mean anything, it was just a quick paycheck, but still, my socio-historical literary criticism muscle just won’t quit and it’s killing me.
Fix my brain in the comments.