‘Zero K’ by Don DeLillo – Can One Complain About a Lack of Warmth in a Cryonics Novel?


‘Zero K’ by Don DeLillo    (2016) – 274 pages



It is not that I lack appreciation for Don DeLillo’s previous work.  I consider his three novels ‘White Noise’, ‘Libra’, and ‘Mao II’ among the finest totally captivating modern fiction I have read.  Somehow I still haven’t gotten to ‘Underworld’ which is supposed to be his ultimate masterpiece.

“In ‘Mao II’, DeLillo said, “Stories have no point if they don’t absorb our terror”.  DeLillo has confronted the all-encompassing horrors and frights of our modern world for his entire career from Hitler studies (‘White Noise’) to the Kennedy assassination (‘Libra’) to global terrorism (‘Mao II’).

However his new cryonics novel ‘Zero K’ did not work for me.  Sorry.

I fully expect that many of the robber barons of the 21st century, after gloriously partaking in all the good and great things in this short life, now are doing all imaginable to extend that life beyond its mortal limits.  If that means having their bodies frozen in a cryonic chamber until a cure for death can be found, so be it.

“Life everlasting belongs to those of breathtaking wealth.”  

First, here are some facts about the reality of cryonics.  Way back in 1967, James Bedford was the first person put in successful cryonic suspension by the actual non-profit Alcor Foundation of Scottsdale, Arizona which is the largest cryonics organization in the world.  He is still waiting to be thawed.  Perhaps the most famous person to be suspended there is baseball Hall-of-Famer Ted Williams.   The Alcor Corporation currently holds 52 whole bodies and 94 human brains in suspension.

So the idea of cryonics has been around for at least 50 years.  DeLillo personalizes his cryonics story by putting his fully developed fictional characters in this situation.

DeLillo’s novel ‘Zero K’ mainly takes place in far-off Kyrgyzstan where an operation called Convergence has built a cryonics compound.  Wealthy businessman Ross Lockhart has brought his ailing wife here to be frozen.  Ross’s son Jeffrey accompanies them, and he tells the story.

“At some point in the future, death will become unacceptable even as the life of the planet becomes more fragile.”

Much of the dialogue in ‘Zero K’ consists of such pronouncements, and many of the scenes are apocalyptic visions rather than actual events.  All of these disembodied voices and images make the novel seem distant and cold, and I never did warm up to these characters.

The major part of the novel which takes place at the compound in Kyrgyzstan is at least susceptible to human understanding, stark and cold but still comprehensible.   However I found the later scenes that take place in New York to be a pointless portentous muddle.

By all means read Don DeLillo, because he is for sure one of the modern great fiction writers, but once again perhaps you might skip ‘Zero K’.


 Grade:   C+ 



4 responses to this post.

  1. Sorry to hear this one didn’t quite work for you, Tony. I’ve never read DeLillo despite having a couple in my TBR. Do you have a favourite, or is there one you think is good to start with?



    • Hi Kimbofo,
      I’ve read ‘White Noise’, ‘Libra’, and ‘ ‘Mao II’, all of which are excellent. I have also read some of his early work and some of his late work (like ‘Zero K’) which did not appeal to me. I have not read ‘Underworld’ which is over 800 pages and is usually considered his masterpiece. DeLillo had this really hot streak in the 1990s, but his novels from the 2000s seem to get disappointing reviews.

      For someone new to DeLillo, I would probably recommend ‘Libra’. It is about the John F. Kennedy assassination, It speeds along and is easy to follow.



  2. I might read this one since the subject matter vaguely appeals, but yours is the second frosty review I’ve read so it’s clearly not among his best.



    • Hi Max,
      If you have read DeLillo’s series of great novels, you probably will be disappointed in ‘Zero K’. If you haven’t, you might as well read one of them instead.
      The idea of cryogenics is so ancient, fifty years old, it hardly qualifies as science fiction anymore. There are at least 152 real frozen bodies waiting to be thawed sometime in the future.
      I really do want to read ‘Underworld’ sometime. They re-packaged the first 100 or so pages of that novel as ‘Pafko at the Wall’ and I have read that, but I still want to read the whole thing. I think long and hard before committing to an 800+ page novel, although I’ve done it with ‘War and Peace’, ‘Ulysses’, ‘Anna Karenina’, ‘Don Quixote’, etc. .



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