Forty Tales from the Afterlives
By David Eagleman
(Pantheon, Hardcover, 9780307377340, 107pp.)
Publication Date: February 10, 2009
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SUM is a dazzling exploration of funny and unexpected afterlives that have never been considered–each presented as a vignette that offers us a stunning lens through which to see ourselves here and now.
In one afterlife you may find that God is the size of a microbe and is unaware of your existence. In another, your creators are a species of dim-witted creatures who built us to figure out what they could not. In a different version of the afterlife you work as a background character in other people’s dreams. Or you may find that God is a married couple struggling with discontent, or that the afterlife contains only those people whom you remember, or that the hereafter includes the thousands of previous gods who no longer attract followers. In some afterlives you are split into your different ages; in some you are forced to live with annoying versions of yourself that represent what you could have been; in others you are re-created from your credit card records and Internet history. David Eagleman proposes many versions of our purpose here; we are mobile robots for cosmic mapmakers, we are reunions for a scattered confederacy of atoms, we are experimental subjects for gods trying to understand what makes couples stick together.
These wonderfully imagined tale–at once funny, wistful, and unsettling–are rooted in science and romance and awe at our mysterious existence: a mixture of death, hope, computers, immortality, love, biology, and desire that exposes radiant new facets of our humanity.
DAVID EAGLEMAN grew up in New Mexico. As an undergraduate he majored in British and American Literature before earning his PhD in Neuroscience. He heads the Laboratory for Perception and Action at Baylor College of Medicine, and is founder and director of the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law. At night he writes fiction.
“[SUM] belongs to that category of strange, unclassifiable books that will haunt the reader long after the last page has been turned.”
—Alexander McCall Smith
“SUM has the unaccountable, jaw-dropping quality of genius.”
“This delightful, thought-provoking little collection belongs to that category of strange, unclassifiable books that will haunt the reader long after the last page has been turned. It is full of tangential insights into the human condition and poetic thought experiments . . . . It is also full of touching moments and glorious wit of the sort one only hopes will be in copious supply on the other side.”
—The New York Times
“Imaginative and inventive.”
—Wall Street Journal
“This little book is teeming, writhing with imagination.”
—Los Angeles Times
“SUM is terrific. It’s such a good idea that I was grinding my teeth all the way through wishing I’d thought of it first. The inventiveness, the clarity and wit of the prose, the calm air of moral understanding that pervades the whole thing, add up to something completely original. I hope SUM will be the great big hit it deserves to be.”
—Philip Pullman, author of The Golden Compass
“A clever little book by a neuroscientist translates lofty concepts of infinity and death into accessible human terms. What happens after we die? Eagleman wonders in each of these brief, evocative segments. Are we consigned to replay a lifetime’ s worth of accumulated acts, as he suggests in ‘Sum,’ spending six days clipping your nails or six weeks waiting for a green light? Is heaven a bureaucracy, as in ‘Reins,’ where God has lost control of the workload? Will we download our consciousnesses into a computer to live in a virtual world, as suggested in ‘Great Expectations,’ where ‘God exists after all and has gone through great trouble and expense to construct an afterlife for us’? Or is God actually the size of a bacterium, battling good and evil on the ‘battlefield of surface proteins,’ and thus unaware of humans, who are merely the ‘nutritional substrate’? Mostly, the author underscores in ‘Will-’o-the-Wisp,’ humans desperately want to matter, and in afterlife search out the ‘ripples left in our wake.’ Eagleman’s turned out a well-executed and thought-provoking book.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“With both a childlike sense of wonder and a trenchant flair for irony, the Baylor College of Medicine neuroscientist generously offers forty variations on the theme of God and the afterlife, imagining what each of us might find when we shuffle off this mortal coil.... Sum is great fun—sort of a brainy parlor game in print--and a modest satire aimed at zealots who define heaven and God to serve their own ends. It is also a reminder that when it comes to our knowledge of the hereafter, we have loads of faith but not a scintilla of proof.”
—New York Observer
“This stunningly original book is little more than a 100 pages long. You can get through it in an hour, but you’d be mad to hurry, and you will certainly want to return to it many times . . . . The real question, Eagleman indirectly reminds us, is how to live. This is what makes his book greater than the sum of its brilliant parts. Its success depends on a combination of exquisitely rendered detail and the massive implications that result . . . . It seems exquisitely adapted to fill the contemporary longing for a kind of secular holy book.”
—Geoff Dyer, author of Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, in The Guardian
“Witty, bright, sharp and unexpected . . . as surprising a book as I’ve read for years.”
“David Eagleman’s SUM is a captivating collection of vignettes that portray possible afterlives–creatively conceived and deftly described. Each tale imagines an unexpected reality that might await us, possible worlds that illuminate life with colors rarely encountered.”
—Brian Greene, author of The Elegant Universe
“SUM is an imaginative and provocative book that gives new perspectives on how to view ourselves and our place in the world.”
—Alan Lightman, author of Einstein’s Dreams