Sum: Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman

Canongate Books
2009, Paperback
First collection? Yes

Book website: GreaterThanTheSumOf

David Eagleman is a neuroscientist and a fiction writer.  During the day, he directs the Laboratory for Perception and Action and the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law at Baylor College of Medicine. He is best known for his work on time perception, synesthesia, and neurolaw.  At night, he is a fiction writer.  His debut work of fiction, Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, became an international bestseller and is published in 22 languages.

Read an interview with David Eagleman

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"Heaven looked approximately like people said it would: vast gardens of flora and fauna, angels with harps, San Diego weather. But when you first arrived, you were surprised to find that everything was in disrepair. The gardens were vastly overgrown. The angels were gaunt, sitting on blankets with small paper cups for change in front of their dented harps. They tinkled out a small ditty as you walked by. The day was warm but the sky was gray with smog. God is gone. The rumor is that He stepped out long ago, saying he’d be right back."

Reviewed by Daniela I. Norris

A modest yet subtly sophisticated design allows one to carry this book in the smallest bag, and good thing, too. It is a book you’ll want to flip through again and again, on the morning of a particularly gray day, on your way to work in the crowded underground or any time you need to remind yourself that life is not so bad, and it, too, shall pass.

"Forty tales from the afterlives" is a minimalistic description for these short-shorts (rarely more than two pages each) that definitely go beyond a simple "tale". These are pieces of brilliantly crafted ideas that stay with the reader well beyond the hour or day they were read. David Eagleman, presented on the inside back cover simply as "a neuroscientist and a writer", is clearly a great thinker, too. One example is the brilliant Descent of Species:
"In the afterlife, you are treated to a generous opportunity: you can choose whatever you would like to be in the next life. Would you like to be a member of the opposite sex? Born into royalty? A philosopher with bottomless profundity? A soldier facing triumphant battles? But perhaps you’ve just returned here from a hard life. Perhaps you were tortured by the enormity of the decisions and responsibilities that surrounded you, and now there’s only one thing you yearn for: simplicity."
His insights and ideas go far beyond the standard definition of "stories". They are as bright as stars and as thought provoking as Hawking’s Brief History of Time. Yet Eagleman seems to be having a good laugh while putting them on paper. He does not take them, or himself as the crafter of these ideas, too seriously.
"In the afterlife you find yourself in a beautiful land of milk and honey: there is no poverty, starvation, or warfare, only rolling hills and Lilliputian angels and evocative music. You discover that you are allowed to ask one question of your Maker. You’re led ceremoniously through the glistening arcades of the palace to the great hall, where your Maker sits enthroned in lights that hurt your eyes. You cannot direct your gaze fully at Him. Nonetheless, you stand bravely in front of Him and ask, ‘Why do you live in a place like this, so far from Earth, instead of living down in the trenches with us?'" (from Distance).
The answer to this question will make you smile understandingly. Another such deep yet highly amusing example can be found in Mary:
"When you arrive in the afterlife, you find that Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley sits on a throne. She is cared for and protected by a covey of angels. After some questioning, you discover that God’s favorite book is Shelley’s Frankenstein. He sits up at night with a worn copy of the book clutched in His mighty hands, alternatively reading the book and staring reflectively into the night sky. Like Victor Frankenstein, God considers Himself a medical doctor, a biologist without parallel, and He has a deep, painful relationship with any story about the creation of life."
I would not normally reveal the end of a story, but in this one I must, for it illustrates why this collection is a must-have:
"…This is why he now locks Himself in His room, and at night sneaks out onto the roof with Frankenstein, reading again and again how Dr. Victor Frankenstein is taunted by his merciless monster across the Arctic ice. And God consoles Himself with the thought that all creation necessarily ends in this: Creators, powerless, fleeing from the things they have wrought."
The unpretentiousness and brilliance of this small book makes it unique among collections of short stories. At least for a while, this will be my new pocket bible.

Read three stories from this collection on

Daniela I. Norris is a former diplomat, turned writer. The author of numerous short stories, articles and two books due out in early 2010, she is currently working on a series of political thrillers set at the United Nations in Geneva. She is Contributing Editor with the Geneva Times and book reviewer on World Radio Switzerland's Bookmark program.

Daniela's other Short Reviews: Lynne Patrick (ed) "Criminal Tendencies"

Dede Crane "The Cult of Quick Repair"

Alexandra Leggat "Animal"

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