Sum, as its subtitle ‘Tales from the Afterlives’ more than implies, is a collection of forty versions of life after death. ‘Tales’ is perhaps a slight exaggeration – descriptions might be more accurate – particularly as no characterisation is included, with most stories being written in the second person and lasting typically between two and four pages. The focus, instead, is on what each afterlife will consist of. In the title story, for example, we will re-experience our life in sections where similar actions or states are grouped together:
“You spend two months driving the street in front of your house, seven months having sex. You sleep without opening your eyes for thirty years.”
Even at this early point, you may not be surprised to learn that David Eagleman is a scientist, though his contention that we spend more than twice as long looking for lost items than having sex is, hopefully, not based on research (though a low sex count may be explained by the frankly saintly two days of lying). It’s an amusing conceit, and it ends, as many of the stories do, with a plea to enjoy life as it is, as we spend four minutes imagining:
“…a life where experiences are split into tiny swallowable pieces, where moments do not endure, where one experiences the joy of jumping from one event to the next like a child hopping from spot to spot on the burning sand.”
Despite the fact that the image doesn’t quite work (it describes the movement but in the context of a monotonous landscape and an unpleasant feeling), and that the conclusion contradicts the central idea (this afterlife is supposed to be based entirely on what we did and thought in our life) we can see the point Eagleman is making. Many of the afterlives seem designed to deliver this same message. In one God creates true equality, and everyone is miserable; in another our life seems unchanged until we realise that we are only able to meet those we already knew on earth.
In these brief summaries, you can probably already see the attraction of the book. The stories seem to suggest an infinite number of possibilities, they tend to be cleverly thought through, and there is an element of the parlour game about it as the reader begins to construct his own afterlives. However, reading through them (and perhaps this is a book best dipped into), certain limitations become apparent. Science and technology play a significant role in the large majority of the stories, many of which are based on concepts that a reader of science fiction would find familiar. In more than one the earth is the result of an alien experiment, or we are part of a giant computer, or we are “mobile cameras” mapping out our world. Cameras and screens feature prominently. In one afterlife we are recreated using all available data:
“The ReCreators analyse every existing frame of video footage on the planet for your every appearance: buying coffee at a convenience store, standing in front of an ATM withdrawing money, clutching a diploma, walking unwittingly in the background of other people’s home videos, eating a hot dog on the bleachers during a basketball game.”
In another, where we are allowed to observe life on earth, this takes place in
“…a vast comfortable lounge with leather furniture and banks of television monitors.”
The 21st century, rather than eternity, echoes through the pages. Twice sushi is associated with luxury. When it comes to relationships, lovers are frequently mentioned, but not parents or children.
This may seem over critical – the book is both entertaining and imaginative – however, it does not the excessive praise with which it has been garlanded. The prose is functional, the ideas are often clever but rarely profound, and little of it remained with me as I turned the final page, with the promise that I would one day read it all again, in reverse.