Sum, By David Eagleman

Matters of (after) life and death

Nicholas Tucker
Wednesday 25 December 2013 02:15

Little coherent has been written about how time might be passed in any afterlife, although Michael Frayn's 1973 novel Sweet Dreams is one happy exception.

David Eagleman, an American neuroscientist, has now come up with 40 intriguing tales describing different heavenly scenarios. None is over three pages long and all are formidably imagined. Fundamentalists will find nothing to recognise here, but other readers may discover much to appreciate – not least the lives they are living now, still so much better than some nightmares in these pages.

Imagine a Heaven where episodes in life that share the same quality are grouped together in time, so that six days are spent clipping nails, 15 months looking for lost items and three years swallowing food. Or an afterlife composed entirely of people you know, with no hope of any stranger to break the monotony. Or where you exist in multiple forms according to different ages, with the older you telling stories to your bored junior version. Or even worse, a universe populated by all the different selves you could have been had chances been taken. "You grudgingly befriend some of the lesser yous and go drinking with them. Even at the bar you see the better yous, buying rounds for their friends, celebrating their latest good choice."

God makes frequent appearances, in one story the size of a microbe and unaware of human existence, in another so overworked he is sidelined by angels with a better grasp of modern technology. A third tale finds him reading Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, consoling himself with the thought that all creators end up fleeing from the things they have wrought.

Elsewhere, God is a she, or a married couple who fall out. But the corresponding gender war on earth never materialises, with every human now monosexual and too occupied with grieving for the total absence of romance. So this quirky, occasionally unsettling book goes on, never short of new ideas, all of them rolled out with style.

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