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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.
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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.
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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.
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on 7 September 2017
The book has been produced to look very appealing. Nice cover; slightly unusual format: and quotes from the great and the good. Shame about the content. Eagleman is a neuroscientist (therefore 'very clever') and author- I hope he's a lot better in the former role.
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on 10 May 2016
I bought this book after watching Dr Eagleman's recent BBC4 series on The Brain, which I found fascinating. Almost all reviews of this book praise it to high heaven (!?) but I must be missing something. The concept and format was intriguing but I found the actuality very disappointing. I think the intention of the book was to make us think about our present station in life through short excursions into imagined false idealisms. I am surprised that so many other reviewers found this heading towards the 'life-changing' category as I would have thought most of the scenarios and outcomes self-evident to anyone who has pondered the meaning of life whilst waiting for a human being to respond to a call-centre enquiry. Hmm, it seems not to have changed my grumpy outlook on life.
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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"?
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on 20 February 2010
There are more ideas packed into its 110 small pages than you'll find in a complete case of business books, Eagleman's first work of fiction, it's forty imaginings of what happens after death - none of which feature pearly gates or fluffy clouds. Astonishing economy in the writing, much of it is almost prose-poetry. But it's the richness of the ideas that really captures. Slip it into your briefcase and dip in when you need inspiration - if only to make you appreciate what you have right here, right now.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 5 September 2012
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.
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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.
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on 26 June 2010
If you enjoyed this book, and the range of alternatives it presents, try The Book of Scotlands by Momus which has a similar conjectural structure, but offer an even greater and more playful range of options, this time not for the afterlife, but for ideas of what Scotland might be, reimagining Scotland as variously East Berlin or Palestine, as a Las Vegas holiday resort atop a volcano, as a future digital Scotland, it's population constantly awaiting the new upgrade or a society in which one is only allowed to own what one can carry in a rucksack. Solution 11-167 - The Book Of Scotlands
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