This is totally unrelated to the content of the book, but I keep wanting to call this Sum: Forty-One Tales from the Afterlives, after the band Sum 41. And I kind of feel like David Eagleman missed out on some tie-in gold there. Call me, Eagleman.
Let’s start with one huge positive of this book: it’s short. I’m saying that’s a positive not because I disliked the book—quite the opposite, in fact. And yeah, maybe I am reading a whole bunch of short books in the last few days of 2014 to bump up my read count, just so I don’t fall quite so short of my goal. No, despite containing forty tales—essentially flash fiction—Sum is just over a hundred pages, barely novella-length, and eminently readable in a single sitting, if you are so inclined. (I broke it into two, because I’m a rebel that way.) And this is a positive because all forty tales are second-person stories about what happens after you die. They aren’t necessarily repetitive, but there’s only so much one can take of, “After you die, you find out that …” in all its myriad forms before you kind of want to read about life again. Eagleman seems to understand this and keeps each piece short and sweet.
I don’t have to give a summary of this anthology, because the subtitle says it all. Eagleman tries to come at the concept of afterlife from as many different angles as possible. Some of them will be familiar to anyone with a passing interest in speculative fiction; others are fascinating and perhaps new to the reader. Eagleman has a fancy degree in neuroscience, which is the study of brain things. As such, most of the stories focus on the issue of selfhood and how one’s self can maintain a continuous and consistent identity, not just after life, but during life as well. These sorts of issues, related to philosophy of mind, are some of my favourites in the field, and in this respect, Sum hooked me.
That being said, my familiarity with some of these ideas from other fiction means that many of what could have been the collection’s highlights tended to fall flat. They were well-executed, but I’ve seen the “it’s a simulation,” “we’re all part of a computer program,” “we created the gods,” etc. so much, and usually, explored much more richly than Eagleman can afford to do here. I can laud Eagleman for bringing them to a wider audience, but I can’t derive a lot of personal enjoyment from it.
I think Sum exemplifies how shorter works can really get it right. It would be a mistake to call this shallow despite its brevity or repetitive despite its consistent theme. Rather, Eagleman is adept at the variations to a dazzling degree. It’s a rewarding read, but unlike so many larger, thicker collections, it isn’t intimidating at all. I’m not enthusiastic enough about it to recommend it to everyone, but I could see myself recommending it to the right person. (For a price. Call me, Eagleman.)
If you’ve ever wondered what happens after we die but find the Bible too long and poorly edited, then Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives is probably for you.