"Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives"
(Reviewed by Kirstin Merrihew FEB 26, 2009)
"In the afterlife you meet God. To your surprise and delight, She is like no god that humans have conceived. She shares qualities with all religions' descriptions, but commands a deific grandeur that was captured in the net of none. She is the elephant described by blind men: all partial descriptions with no understanding of the whole."
Scientists postulate a self-originating universe requiring no Creator God and containing no afterlife for living beings. The Big Bang, branes, dark matter, and space-time curvature all model a material cosmos that doesn't need to take spiritual components into account.
However, even religions don't agree on whether God exists and in what capacity. Some preach the Personhood of God, others a more abstract Highest Power. The great traditions also split on what happens to us when we die. Reincarnation anchors a number of belief systems, while others firmly decree we only live once. And some insist on a Heaven with streets of gold and buildings of jasper and emerald, while others claim death brings a melding with the Supreme Force and a dropping of all individual characteristics.
All of this confusion about the nature of God and the afterlife can be attributed to living in a universe that doesn't simply lay its mysteries at our feet. And although some human beings have testified that God has spoken to them, history records no event at which the Almighty unambiguously revealed Himself to every living person simultaneously. God remains elusive and that teases the question of whether the Most High exists at all. And although an afterlife isn't necessarily dependent upon the existence of God, we human beings aren't equipped to know with certainty what happens when we die. Psychics, gurus, and mystics tell different stories about what lies beyond the veil.
This maelstrom of hypotheses and augural extrapolations leaves room for an infinity of further "what ifs" about who, what, where, and when runs our cosmos and what kind of "life" might follow physical mortality. Neuro-scientist David Eagleman has seen his opportunity to contribute his conjectures. His SUM: Forty Tales from the Afterlives plunges right in, brashly inventing new benchmarks for Divine behavior and eternal life. This small book of only 110 pages brims over with ideas as each vignette envisions a different, often ironic and amusing, afterlife. For instance, in Mirrors "you" die but don't really feel dead...until all the reflections of how you looked in other people's eyes assemble before you and "that's what finally kills you." For real.
Then there is Distance which allows "us" to ask God face to face why He lives in a palace far, far away instead of "in the trenches with us." God replies he used to live among us, but "[o]ne morning I awoke to find people picketing in front of my driveway."
And Circle of Friends tells of an afterlife in which each person exists on an earth peopled only by those he or she knew in life -- for most people about 0.00002 percent of the world's population. "The missing crowds make you lonely."
Eagleman's biological expertise makes stories such as Descent of Species and Microbe especially lucid and rich reading. The former asks what would happen to a weary sentient being -- say, you -- who decides to reincarnate as a lower species -- say a horse. What would happen to your capacity to make a higher choice during the next life/death cycle? After all: "The thickening and lengthening of your neck immediately feels normal as it comes about. Your carotid arteries grow in diameter, your fingers blend hoofward, your knees stiffen, your hips strengthen, and meanwhile, as your skull lengthens into its new shape, your brain races in its changes: your cortex retreats as your cerebellum grows, the homunculus melts man to horse, neurons redirect, synapses unplug and replug on their way to equestrian patterns, and your dream of understanding what it is like to be a horse gallops toward you from a distance. Your concern about human affairs begins to slip away...."
And the latter, Microbe, explores this radical proposition: "God created life in His own image; his congregations are the microbes. The chronic warfare over host territory, the politics of symbiosis and infection, the ascendency of strains: this is the chessboard of God where good clashes with evil on the battleground of surface proteins and immunity and resistance." We human beings are just "the backgrounds on which they live....We are neither selected out by evolution nor captured in the microdeific radar. God and His microbial constituents are unaware of the rich social life that we have developed, of our cities, circuses, and wars...."
One of the most intriguing tales is Mary in which Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, sits on a throne in heaven because God so admires her book: "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. He has much to say about bringing animation to the unanimated. Very few of His creatures had thought deeply about the challenges of creating, and it relieved Him a little of the loneliness of His position when Mary wrote her book."
Science fiction writer Larry Niven, in a short story entitled The Subject Is Closed, had a priest try to talk religion with members of an all-female alien species called the Chirpsithra. The aliens, who supposedly were "aeons old" and "rule[d] the galaxy," told the father that they knew "all about life and death." If they did, he wasn't sure he wanted them to tell him. When he went back to pursue the topic, one of the extraterrestrials rephrased, "I told you we know as much as we want to know on the subject." Then she made it clear that another race of beings had apparently learned the secret and died out as result. The Chirpsithra curbed their curiosity to avoid following those others into extinction. "Be cautious in your guesses. You might find the right answer." she warned the man of God. In other words, some mysteries are better left unsolved, at least prematurely.
David Eagleman can't compete with the Chirpsithra with regard to knowledge, but he has a lot of intellectual and literary fun posing possibilities. He throws to the wind any caution about guesses. Yet, in Apostasy (from which the introductory quote came), he fashions a God who would undoubtedly appreciate the restraint of these aliens. This is a God who relishes "[h]er enviable position of revealing the universe's great secrets each day as the dead cross over to Her territory in the next dimension." Eagleman continues, "As you observe Her excitement about revealing this, you begin to suspect that deep down She was afraid that an especially clear-thinking theologian would guess the answer."
SUM is not a conventional religious book per se because it bursts out of established religious thought instead of reinforcing it. These tales conjure versions of the Supreme Being who have more in common with the foible Greek and Norse gods or us than with an image of an omniscient, omnipotent God. These imaginary Capital Beings cry, feel depressed and disappointed, and are uncertain and ignorant. They aren't the emblems of rectitude and glory usually portrayed by Western churches. These are a scientist's fabulous imaginings, not a parson's or a priest's.
This is also a humanist collection. SUM contains forty fables complete with subtle but unmistakable messages about living and loving in the here and now. For example, a person who isn't naturally gregarious who reads A Circle of Friends might begin to socialize more. Reading Descent of Species is apt to encourage people not to look a gift horse in the mouth, wouldn't you say? And so on.
SUM broadens our spiritual peripheral vision, reminding us that the human imagination can and does think of God and life after death in fresh ways. Some would say this is because God is really only a figment of the sentient mind. Others would counter that just because we can't understand God's ways doesn't negate his actuality, but only underscores our smallness in relation to the Holy One; after all, we don't expect an ant to understand us, do we? Whatever the truth might be, SUM shines a witty light on forty postmortem worlds that each reach out in clever admonition to us, the living. Don't miss it.
- Amazon readers rating: from 25 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives at RandomHouse
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives (February 2009)
- Wednesday Is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia (April 2009) (with Richard E. Cytowic)
- Plasticity: How the Brain Reconfigures Itself
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- Official website for David Eagleman
- Wikipedia page for David Eagleman
- Dallas News review of Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives
- Colorado Springs review of Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives
- NPR on Sum
- The New York Times review of Sum
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About the Author:
David Eagleman grew up in New Mexico to a physician father and biology teacher mother. An early experience of falling from a roof raised his interest in understanding the neural basis of time perception.
As an undergraduate he majored in British and American Literature at Rice University, with his junior year abroad at Oxford University, graduating in 1993.He earned his PhD in Neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine in 1998, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship at the Salk Institute. He serves on the editorial boards of the scientific journals PLoS One and Journal of Vision.
He directs a neuroscience research laboratory at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. He studies time perception, synesthesia, and how neuroscience will influence the legal system. At night he writes fiction.