Suspended animation - putting bodies into cold storage to be brought back to life later - used to be the stuff of science fiction.But in East Sussex they're doing it for real (sort of). James Bennett checks out the chill factor.
It looks like any small-time industrial estate. Breeze block and corrugated iron. Greys and browns. Cul-de-sacs and car parks. Opposite a warehouse devoted to double-glazed windows, there's a nondescript "unit" with a sign that says Alcor UK. It could deal in anything: nuts, bolts, frozen food. In fact it deals in frozen meat, of a sort.
Frozen people is the product in question. Here in the small Sussex community of Pevensey is the "only UK facility" for cryonic suspension. And, yes, you too - for a substantial dollar sum - could get your body frozen, to wake again in another decade, century or millennium. Maybe.
I'd started my search for immortality by looking up "cryogenics" on the internet. But "We don't freeze people" was the message that greeted me on the first site I found. "Cryogenics", it turns out, is the the respectable science of freezing per se. "Cryonics" is what we want, and Alcor is one of several organisations that provide it.
I ring the number that offers cold comfort to the merely mortal. "Oh," says a surprised-sounding woman, "could you ring back and speak to my husband?" This I do, and here I am.
The door is opened by a short, middle-aged man in a San Francisco baseball cap. This is the Alcor UK membership secretary, first point of contact for would-be death-cheaters. For the purposes of this article he must go by the pseudonym John Devine. "It's because of my mother," he explains, as he makes coffee in a small, functional kitchen. "She doesn't know about this. She's 97 and she doesn't need any more shocks in her life."
Alone in the building, we move into what looks like an unloved, modern staffroom - musty, rarely occupied smell, one or two discoloured patches on the ceiling, garish carpet, harsh lights. Lining the walls, metal cabinets reveal not exercise books but packets of syringes and bottles of sodium chloride. Half a dozen grey lab coats hang on pegs.
If I were a real potential member, John Devine tells me, I'd come first to one of the monthly meetings where a small group gathers to talk of life to come, or one of the quarterly meetings where most of the 40 UK members conduct their training sessions.
Although Alcor UK has been running for more than a decade, no member has yet died. "It's a young membership," explains Mr Devine. "I'm 56, and I'm one of the oldest."
So no one's actually been frozen then? I expect him to pick me up on the word "frozen", insisting on some technical terminology. In fact he's - um - cool about it. "Well, you can say 'cryonically suspended' if you want. But we all say frozen. And no, no one here's been frozen yet." But at Alcor's HQ in Arizona, he adds, around 40 frozen people are awaiting rebirth.
Back here in Sussex, my next decision, it seems, is whether to have my whole body frozen or just my brain. John Devine jauntily advises: "A lot of people don't want their old body back. They'll just have new bodies grown from their DNA. Well, they can do it with sheep already, can't they? And in 70 years it'll be standard practice. It makes sense, because it's your brain you really want to preserve, isn't it?" "So you're down for a brain job then?" I casually enquire, sipping my coffee.
"That's right. And my wife too. My stepson is interested, but he's only 22, so he's still thinking about it." At this point I'm reminded of a daft old song called "I'm My Own Grandad".
If the Devine stepson chooses not to freeze, his stepfather might thaw out in 50 years' time to be younger than him. Devine senior is unfazed. "That's true," he calmly agrees.
So how much does it cost to end up younger than your kids? "I've got the form here," he says. "Let me see. It works out at $50,000 (pound;33,500) for a neuro - that's brain-only - and $120,000 (pound;80,400) for a full body. Most of our members pay through an insurance policy - it can work out at as little as a pound or two a day, depending on your age."
None of this comes with a hard sell, I might add. Mr Devine insists Alcor does no active recruiting. Interested parties merely find their way to the group, which professes to be non-profit making - a charity, in fact.
Once you've paid your pound or two a day, you get your all-important ID card, bracelet or pendant. "I've got all three," says John Devine, who's taking no chances. The pendant he shows me is silver, an inch in diameter, and gives the Alcor phone number to be called in the event of death, along with the warning: "No autopsy or embalming". Preparation for freezing should begin within an hour of death.
So what happens if you die, suddenly, in the middle of nowhere? "You've had it," is the frank reply. "But the fact is that 99 per cent of people die in hospital."
Coffee drained, Mr Devine leads me on a tour to show what will happen when an Alcor member does die. There's an ambulance bay, complete with ageing ambulance, never yet used for its intended purpose, but lovingly maintained. There's an operating theatre where members, trained as volunteer paramedics, prepare "the patient" (organisers of cryonics services never talk of "the body") for freezing.
This involves injecting a special solution to protect the organs and slowly lowering the temperature. The team should be led by a fully qualified Alcor surgeon - if he gets there in time, as he has to come from the States.
Above the operating table is a huge light, a metre in diameter. "It does work," says Mr Devine, as if I'm doubting it. He switches it on and a slight glow emerges.
Next door is the cool-down bay, where you slip into an ice bath before being placed in the cryogenic transport vessel (coffin) for the flight to the US (disappointingly, no bodies are kept here). Once in Arizona, you get the liquid nitrogen treatment to - 190C. Then you wait.
On a corridor wall, snapshots show Alcor UK members in the great outdoors, clutching chicken legs - the annual frozen-people outing. Next to these is someone's favourite still from Star Trek. John Devine's, I suspect.
After the tour I'm bursting with questions. Why do you want more life? "Well, I've always been interested in what you might call futurism. Then, in 1990, they built this place in my own home town. The local paper published a piece making out it was just for millionaires. Then I found out you could fund it through insurance and I thought: What have I got to lose?" Suggest that it's selfish and unnatural to want more life, that tomorrow's planet belongs to tomorrow's people, and Mr Devine is ready with a list of worthy examples - the young cancer victim, the war pensioner who gave his best years to the country, the downtrodden mother who had no life of her own - and asks if I'd deny them a second chance. And if not them, how to deny anyone else? Who would play God and make a judgment?
He reckons "about 10 per cent of our members call themselves Christians". Do they go to heaven temporarily then, on a return ticket? Mr Devine, despite his pseudonym, can't answer that one.
Isn't there a danger, I wonder, that some believers, keen to come back in good nick, will want to be frozen before death? Mr Devine says there was a man, a Thomas Donaldson, who fought and lost in the courts for just this right. "It's a huge question," he admits. "If it was allowed it would amount to euthanasia."
The biggest question, of course, is what are the chances of it working? All the cryonics organisations admit there can be no guarantees but point out that you cannot be certain of waking up from even the most routine of operations in today's world. Why not put your faith in the possibility, they ask, that science will soon have a remedy for every disease, including old age, and that new techniques, most notably nanotechnology, will allow future clinicians to revive and heal frozen bodies or brains?
When does John Devine expect to wake up - and into what kind of world? "They're saying it could be in about 70 years' time," he says brightly. "I think the biggest problem will be that people in the future will be superintelligent compared to us. But they'll probably just insert a microchip into our brains to bring us up to speed."
And will they want to be bothered with us old-timers? "Oh, I think so," he says. "Maybe just out of curiosity, if nothing else. Would we pass up the chance to bring back a dinosaur if we could? In any case, we're not relying on the outside world - we're fully confident that Alcor will be around for hundreds of years."
John Devine locks up, and we leave. Outside the building, I notice a clue to the company's nature. Next to the words "Alcor UK" is an emblem - a phoenix rising from the ashes. But it doesn't inspire confidence that the mythical bird seems to have risen from the dead with part of its wing missing. "We've been meaning to get that fixed," mutters Mr Devine.
Alcor UK, tel: 01323 460257; www.alcor.co.uk.