on 24 July 2012
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'".
Absent, unapproachable gods, shunned gods, gods who have long abandoned their original creation project. In all of these, mankind is wobbling between greatness and insignificance. mankind holds the key if only we could perceive it. The 40 tales are offered up as fictions rather than gospel. They are sketches, not without their lyricism, but they are to prompt and provoke thought, rather than supply any answer. Some of the stories see both us and the beings who populate the afterlife, but cut adrift from one another due to an inability to communicate as much as a discrepancy in scale. In "Giantess" a race finally work out how to send a message to the divinity, but only succeed in provoking an immune response from her that destroys their civilisation. The last survivor begs the human race to keep its din down so as not to draw the same reaction.
Eagleman is a neuroscientist by trade, but here clearly shows a literary skill in drawing on both science, poetic metaphor and myth to weave together a wonderfully fresh vision. In "Mary", Mary Shelley sits on the throne in the afterlife, because only she in "Frankenstein" has evidenced a mortal's understanding of the situation our Creator finds himself in when his creations have got away from him.
I would recommend this delightful little book to the readers of any genre. It is quite simply the sum of our lives. Told in just 4 page long stories.
on 15 January 2012
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.
on 21 November 2010
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.
on 12 June 2010
This little book has already caused quite a sensation in the publishing world, and for good reason too. And you can read why from the blurb on the back of the book. It did generate a variety of effects for me. Each short tale leaves a slightly different taste to the previous one. Some you will want to savour and allow the flavours to linger, whilst others may have no affect at all. Not only do you get such a wide variety of ideas and concepts, but the prose is delicious! Writers generally acknowledge that the short story is more of a challenge. These are not really short stories, more ideas for films or something, but the writing is superb.
They read quite like modern parables, with the effect of making you slow down and reflect. You can't help but put the book down after reading one and stare out of the window for a while and allow some re-arranging of the auld internal furniture. And you think of how life could be and then you think of how life is. And it's not so bad at all. And you just might catch a glimpse of wonder at the mystery of it all.
on 8 June 2011
Eagleman's book is subtitled, "Forty Tales from the Afterlife", leading one to think that these are stories about post-death experiences, but they're really about how the brain experiences reality here and now. Eagleman is a neuro-scientist, and has said his religious beliefs waver between none and agnosticism, so he's not interested in religion as such, even though he may use the concepts of "heaven", "hell",or "God" in these sketches. None of what Eagleman writes, then, is to be seen as any kind of literal vision of the "afterlife" as normally depicted by religion. Religion, when it talks about an afterlife, either sees a terminal heaven or hell, or suggests some form of earthly reincarnation. Eagleman is not in competition with these conventional views.
For example, in the title piece Eagleman writes, "In the afterlife you relive all your experiences, but this time with the events reshuffled into a new order: all the moments that share a quality are grouped together. You spend two months driving the street in front of your house, seven months having sex, you sleep for 30 years without opening your eyes . . ." I think Eagleman is asking a basic question of how it is that we DO separate our common experiences by interludes of time, or how is it that our brains are able to simply forget and blot out experiences that have taken up so much of our lives?
Forty "tales" then, stories, sketches, prose poems, whatever you want to call them. They're uneven, the best ones nudge you out of your habitual way of looking at things, the ordinary ones elicit a "so"?
on 30 April 2011
First, a bit of disclosure. I regard myself as a fairly phlegmatic person, not overly emotional and certainly not one to become teary eyed over a book. But by the time I read chapter 4 of "Sum", I had to put it down. The central premise of the book, and the emotional impact of the conceit, made it impossible to read on. This is most definitely a good thing.
The last book to effect me in such a way was "A history of the World in en and a Half Chapters" and it is probably no coincidence that "Sum" is both structurally and thematically similar (and, of course, the last chapter of "A History..." could quite easily slip unnoticed into "Sum"). I won't say too much for fear of spoiling either book for those who have not yet read them, but they are both incredibly life affirming, but achieve such affirmation by deconstructing the way that you regard the every day world around you. With both books, I found that sometimes you just need to step back and let your brain catch up.
It is so powerful, jarring, and moving that I've found it difficult to read more than 3 or 4 chapters of "Sum" in one sitting. There again, I rather think that was the author's intent.
on 7 February 2010
This book has been garnering a host of admirers, from writers such as Alexander McCall Smith and Phillip Pullman to commentators from the heavier end of the celebrity spectrum such as Brian Eno and Stephen Fry.
There are clearly many within the forty `tales' that are stunningly original, witty and laced with wisdom. The subtitle and all the reviews outline the novel structure and conceit of the work, namely very short accounts - one to three pages each - riffing on different takes on the `afterlife' and by way of that, God, the purpose of life, philosophical, psychological, theological or political conundrums.
The notion, for example, that much of our existence takes `place in the eyes, ears and fingertips of others' that, once one has left the earth, is `stored in scattered heads around the globe' playfully elaborates on themes that have already occupied the `ologies' and isms' of more than a few sombre academics.
The main reason that these undoubted qualities do not lead to my doling out the five star accolade concerns the cumulative effect of these forty tales being collected within one volume. I can see how each short piece would be a star turn as a regular feature in a journal or a literate magazine, where reading one would definitely whet my appetite for the appearance of the next, one week, one month or whatever the publication interval was, later. As a compendium however, I found myself eventually wearying of them, mainly because of the way the format of self contained brevity created for me a repetitiveness that diminished the freshness and distinctiveness of the individual pieces. By about three quarters of the way through I was hungry for a sense of development, the fleshing out of a narrative or the elaboration of a set of ideas.
While I'm sure that the cult status of this little book will continue to grow and attract new devotees, I personally found myself pleased to be finishing it, with my motivation to return to, and complete, `Crime and Punishment' having been refreshed by the excursion.
on 24 September 2011
Didn't know what to expect from this book and was slightly disappointed to find nothing particularly profound in it - more an exploration of how many different scenarios the author could think up. I admire him for making it to 40 though I suspect 20 would have been enough. However, to get the best out of it, I would recommend reading one or two per day and really thinking about them. It passes the time.
This is the second time I've read this book. The first time I heard about it was just after it was published. The book was mentioned on BBC Radio 4 and I was sufficiently intrigued to buy it. I have just re-read it for my book group. The short stories that comprise the book are clever, occasionally funny, and generally thought provoking. Those stories that offer life lessons, and ideas about enjoying a fulfilling life, are the ones I enjoyed the most. I must confess that towards the end of the book the cleverness started to pall, and the stories started to merge together. Ultimately it's enjoyable and interesting but not as wonderful as many of the reviews here suggest.
on 19 June 2012
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.
I fully understand that we are not meant to take this too seriously, and that it's offered more as a series of thought experiments rather than a book of viable theories, but I just feel it could have been so much better. It's certainly not radical enough to upset the theists, and not stimulating enough to satisfy the atheists; again, two things it could have achieved with a little more thought.
I've given it three stars for being 'amusing', but it certainly isn't a work of "genius" I'm afraid.