Review of Sum: Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman

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Does this very slim volume come under the genre of speculative fiction? Absolutely, in my opinion. No – there are no vamps, no quests, no dragons or fairies, or kickass heroines. No heros, either…

However there is a series of very short stories or musings about a variety of afterlives that range from the poignant and thoughtful through to the plain laugh-aloud funny. The first story in the collection, Sum, is a classic example of what the book offers. Eagleman proposes that in this version of the Afterlife, we get to experience everything that happened to us during our lives on Earth. The difference this time around, is that everything occurs in solid blocks of time. So you spend thirty years asleep; five months sitting reading on the toilet; two days lying; fifteen hours writing your signature… The list is a lot longer, but you get the idea. By the end, you are desperate for a break and dream that heaven is a place where you experience these monumental blocks in manageable slices. I don’t normally give Spoilers during my reviews, but I’ve made an exception with this exceptional book so the elegance and wit of this short story can be fully appreciated. Besides, there are thirty-nine other tales to enjoy, so I haven’t majorly diminished the reading experience in letting this little kitten out of the bag.

sumEagleman is an interesting character. He is a neuroscientist whose previous published works relate to his research into synaesthesia. I acquired the book from the library after hearing Eagleman on a Radio Four programme, all set to grit my teeth and endure a blast of Dawkinsesque scorn on hearing that the author was a scientist. I am very pleasantly surprised. While some of the ideas Eagleman explores are ironic, some funny and some very dark at no time does he treat the subject of the Afterlife with anything less than respect. Indeed, Eagleman claims to be a Possibilian – someone who entertains the notion that there might be a whole range of different Afterlives out there, waiting to be experienced.

This little book was published in 2009 and very quickly garnered a fistful of rave reviews, emphasising its originality, charm and inventive. The word ‘genius’ has even been slung around… While I wouldn’t go quite that far, I’ll happily endorse anyone claiming it is unlike anything else you’ve ever come across. As for originality – you start really examining some of the forty ideas and you’ll find you are being pushed into brain-bulging places. Meat and drink for those of us who like our ideas and fiction on the weirder side.

As with any anthology, some of the stories work better than others. Sum is one of the better ones – but it is by no means my favourite. A word of caution, though. It might be a very small book and you could easily whizz through it in one sitting. Don’t. My advice is never to read more than two of these little stories at a time because to do so is to risk becoming inured to the sheer amazing leaps of imagination Eagleman is asking you to take. For a start, the spare writing style helps to quickly reduce any wonderment to workaday levels. I’m in two minds about the writing. While Eagleman hasn’t wasted a single word in conveying his fantastic ideas in a very clear, matter of fact manner, I have a hunch that in places the application of a little few more flourishes in his prose might help his readers keep hold of the sheer enormity of the subject they are being asked to consider.
For me, it is when Eagleman allows the emotion to break through that these clever musings are elevated to real brilliance. The stand-out stories for me when this happens, are Egalitaire, Metamorphosis, Mirrors, Will-o’-the-Wisp and Apostasy. I hasten to add that the rest still provide plenty of brain fodder, surprise and interest, but these five also caught my soft spot…

It is with real reluctance that I am going to have to hand back my library copy. Because, in this literary equivalent of a Tardis, there are just so many stupendous brain-aching ideas that I haven’t yet had a chance to fully examine. So with Christmas looming, could someone be good enough to buy me a copy as a present – please?
10/10

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