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Sum: Tales from the Afterlives Paperback – 24 Apr 2009

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Product details

  • Paperback: 128 pages
  • Publisher: Canongate Books; Main edition (24 April 2009)
  • Language: Unknown
  • ISBN-10: 1847674275
  • ISBN-13: 978-1847674272
  • Product Dimensions: 11.1 x 1 x 17.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (112 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 21,495 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

David Eagleman, PHD, is a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston Texas where his research laboratory is developing a reputation for doing some of the most unusual experiments in contemporary neuroscience. He has had essays published in all manner of journals including Nature and Science. He also lectures widely and continues to be invited to speak at universities all around the world.

Product Description


Witty, bright, sharp and unexpected . . . as surprising a book as I've read for years. Every story is a new Heaven. (Brian Eno)

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)

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 DREAM)

Brilliantly realised, blazingly original, Sum isn't so much about the next life as this one. Eagleman's stories - parables? - a chilly reminder of our foibles and delusions. (Colin Waters Sunday Herald 2009-05-03)

This is as much an object of desire as an actual book . . . elegant, surreal and philosophically questioning, each story from neuroscientist Eagleman offers an inventive, thought-provoking blend of science and romance . . . sly wit, ingenuity and oddly acute insight into the vagaries of the human condition. (Tina Jackson Metro 2009-04-20)

Clever, memorable stuff. (Lottie Moggach The London Paper 2009-04-29)

40 intriguing tales describing different heavenly scenarios . . . and all formidably imagined . . . Readers may discover much to appreciate - not least the lives they are living now, still so much better than some nightmares in these pages . . . quirky, occasionally unsettling . . . never short of new new ideas, all of them rolled out with style. (Nicholas Tucker Independent 2009-05-11)

I suppose there could be people who dislike Canongate's latest find . . . those, dare one say it, without poetry in their souls. For the rest - the millions who even in a post-religious, secular society find themselves at unexpected moments wondering who or what God is, if he's not a little old man sitting on a cloud. (Mary Crockett Scotsman 2009-05-09)

A clever book. (Robert Hanks Daily Telegraph 2009-05-23)

This stunningly original book is little more than 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 . . . Sum has the unaccountable, jaw-dropping quality of genius. It seems exquisitely adapted to fill the contemporary longing for a kind of secular holy book. (Geoff Dyer Observer 2009-06-07)

The most thought provoking stocking filler you could hope to find: a slender volume of bite size vignettes pondering what happens after we die. (Scotsman 2009-12-06)

It does what it says in the title - satirical, playful, troubling, inventive, thought provoking and often funny takes on possible afterlives. A complete one off. I've been buying it and giving to friends and family. Everyone is delighted. Keep by the bed and feed yourself one or two before turning out the light. (Andrew Greig Sunday Herald 2009-11-29)

Charming, a bit whimsical, and thought-provoking. (Mark Sarvas)

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 . . . full of touching moments and glorious wit of the sort one only hopes will be incopious supply on the other side. (The New York Times)


Sum is terrific... The inventiveness, the clarity and wit of the prose...add up to something completely original.

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Customer Reviews

4.1 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

43 of 46 people found the following review helpful By The Aging Forehead on 21 Nov. 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Taken at face value, as a kind of fantasy thought-experiment succintly exploring the sheer strangeness of the concept of death itself, the book is by turns witty, imaginative, playful, and occasionally poetic. Each tale works independently in terms of its individual logic, and overall there is a real cumulative pleasure taken in the notion of comparing 40 'invented' afterlives. Some of the ideas are extensions of already existing fantasy and science-fiction lore to some extent, and religious ideas also get included - paradoxes and all - but what becomes clear,as it should, is that all of this is about how we actually value our lives, and really has nothing to do with the afterlife at all. It is essentially secular in its free play with ideas, levelling the profound alongside the trivial, and the 'deep' with the light.

Apparently some religious critics have found this book shallow and undermining of the seriousness of certain religious ideas. As someone who firmly believes religious afterlife 'hope and judgement' conceits are human-foible infected fantasies anyway, I find the humanity and playfulness exhibited here actually a confirmation of one the best aspects of human nature - inquisitivity. God forbid Eagleman uses the imagination God apparently gave him in the first place.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Paula Sharkey on 15 Jan. 2012
Format: Paperback
I loved this little book. Eagleman has such a great imagination taking us on whimsical hypothesis that stay with us long after putting the book down. The stories are more philosophy than fantasy and put forward better thought out scenarios than entire catechisms of so called Religions. You can read it all the way thought or just pick it up every now and then and read one little story. I found my mind returning to the stories during the day.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Genome on 24 July 2012
Format: Paperback
This is a work of fiction, but it's no story. It's a series of short stories, but it's no anthology. It is exactly what it says in the title; 40 tales, none longer than 4 pages, offering wonderfully imaginative, creative scenarios to posit an exact nature of the afterlife. In so doing it touches on our notions of God, reality, science, knowledge and the nature of our existence here on earth.

The book plays with notions of scale, humans being dwarfed by giant divinities, or us humans dwarfing microscopic numinous beings. Human beings as recording devices for other beings scientific experiments, an echo of Douglas Adams' joyous playfulness here, so that the afterlife is a debriefing room. Most of the stories see a schism between us mortals and the gods awaiting us in the afterlife. The gods who have set us in motion on earth to whatever end, but where we have gone our own way, or fallen into unpredictable sideroads, usually around love. In "Narcissus" the 'Cartographers' who set us in motion with our eyes, ears and noses as sensory recording devices, despair that we use thelenses of our eyes for scutinising not the landscape for their maps, but into the eye lenses of our felllow species, "an ironic way to trivilaise the technology". In "Quantum" every life choice you turned down you can now act out simultaneously in the afterlife. You protest this is too much to grapple with so the angel offers you a simpole scenarion, you locked in a room with just your lover which you gladly accept: "You are simultaneously engaged in her conversation and thinking about something else... she worships you and wonders what she might have missed with someone else. 'Thank you', you tell the angel. 'This is what I'm used to'".
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By SteveStrummerUK on 19 Jun. 2012
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
In common with a few other reviewers here, I find myself a little perplexed at how this amusing book has attracted quite so much hyperbole. My hunch is that maybe some of the glowing quotes 'Sum' has attracted owe more to 'Emperor's New Clothes' syndrome than the actual content.

The concept is intriguing, and Eagleman is obviously a very talented writer (perhaps 'communicator' would be a better word), but for me anyway, it just doesn't quite hit the mark for some reason.

Don't get me wrong, I very much enjoyed reading this book, but quite a few of the various afterlives described seemed to be variations of each other - just the specifics had been changed. And quite a few of the scenarios have been done before - often in a far superior way. For example, the 'Earth created as a computer with mankind existing to run its program' schtick has been beaten to death, but never better than by the late, great Douglas Adams.

Another thing that started to niggle me a little after reading about a third of the book was how every afterlife only seemed to include inhabitants who had lived a long and seemingly happy and healthy life. The story about the 'Cartographers' designing humans to capture images from the surface of the Earth (which are 'downloaded' in the afterlife once we die) is obviously flawed as it fails to take into account those without sight. I won't labour this point, but, for a book that offers so many alternatives to the orthodox religious versions of heaven and hell, the fact that so many of the scenarios only seem to be designed to cater for the deaths of sane, non-handicapped, long-lived people a bit of a wasted opportunity. Actually, in this way, 'Sum' shares more than a passing similarity to most of these very orthodox descriptions of the afterlife.
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